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Much of the commentary about Syria’s civil war suggests that the country is about to disintegrate into competing sectarian fiefdoms, each dominated by jihadists with a radical Islamist agenda. But during my own recent trip to one of Syria’s “liberated” villages, I saw little evidence that post-Assad Syria will be a failed state, nor even an Islamist one.
Kafarnabel is a small Sunni village in northern Syrian, near the Turkish border. Like many Syrian areas that are controlled by anti-Assad rebels, Kafarnabel no longer has any real top-down government. But rather than fall into chaos, it has become a case study in how free Syrians can run bakeries, provide schooling, maintain security and, most importantly, conduct friendly, civil, co-operative relations with neighbouring communities — even those populated by Alawite Muslims.
This journey to Kafarnabel, officially designated as the “Hand in Hand” mission, was organized by a Toronto-based NGO called the Syrian Centre for Dialogue, to demonstrate solidarity and support with Syrian activists on the ground from their overseas Syrian counterparts. Our message was simple: “You’re not alone, we’re in this struggle together.”
With the financial and moral support of friends and supporters in Toronto, Houston, Texas and Saudi Arabia, we sought to distribute needed medicine, winter clothing and other items to Syrian refugees in Turkey and free Syrians back home.
Crossing the border into “free” Syria was a poignant moment for me: my first visit to my homeland since the revolt began.
The crossing itself was uneventful — no border guards, no army. But we were careful to cross under cover of rain: While the Syrian army has fled the area, aerial surveillance by Bashar Assad’s air force remains a constant threat.
During our time in Kafarnabel, the women of the village organized a party for the 300 local children to play, sing songs and receive packages with crayons, candy and winter coats. But the party had to be held in a cave — because a large gathering, even of children, would be at risk of aerial bombardment.
Across Syria, Kafarnabel has a reputation as “the Conscience of the revolution,” a reputation it earned because of a painting updated regularly on a Kafarnabel Facebook page that seeks to capture the moral state of the revolt. I visited the village just days after a major massacre in nearby Aleppo, and the painting that week was nihilistic in tone, bearing the caption: “Down with the Assad Government, Down with the Syrian National Council, Down with the West, Down with the US, Down with the UN, Down with Everyone.”
At other times, the despair is tinged with sardonic humour, as in the painting of Superman leaving Syria in disgust: “I give up, only God can solve this problem.”
The leaders of the revolt, the Syrian National Council, also come in for criticism: “Your job is to stop the killing of our children. You didn’t do a good job. How can you now run a country?”
While crossing the border into free Syria, I wondered whether, as a Christian, I should wear my cross and keep my head uncovered. Kafarnabel is a conservative Sunni Muslim village, but I was struck by the community’s openness and tolerance. When I raised the issue with a young man I knew, Qutaiba Khalil, he replied: “No, Madame, you must wear your cross, it is a sign of your faith.”
An indication of such interfaith goodwill was a drawing given to me by a young girl, featuring a large mosque and a somewhat smaller church. “Next time, I will make the church bigger,” the young girl assured me.
Another example of Kafarnabel’s religious tolerance was the reverence in which they hold Father Paolo, the Italian Catholic cleric whom Assad exiled from Syria. “One Christian father like Father Paolo is better than a 100 Grand Muftis,” is another of the village’s now famous agitprop declarations.
Among the favourite tactics employed by the Assads to maintain an iron grip on Syria over the decades has been stoking sectarian tensions: dividing Sunni from Alawite from Kurd from Christian. But in the free Syrian village of Kafarnabel, I could detect no such divisions.
The Alawites in the villages nearby have come to the assistance of their Sunni neighbours, and there has been no sectarian violence. “Islam is not about burning homes and killing others,” one of the village elders explained to me. “That is not our Islam.”
As for the jihadists who many in the West fear have hijacked the Syrian Revolution, their cadres are very real. But the activists of Kafarnabel explain their presence as follows: When your children are being slaughtered, you take help from whatever quarter you can. A Saudi billionaire has famously outfitted Syrian rebels with guns and ammunition on the proviso they carry the black al-Qaeda flag and shout “Allah Akbar.” To the fighters of Kafarnabel, that seemed a price worth paying to protect the children.
“There were jihadists in Bosnia during the insurrection there,” argued one of Kafarnabel’s young freedom fighters. “Are they there now? No. They’ve moved on to the next fight.”
After my two-day visit, I left Kafarnabel reassured about the future of a post-Assad Syria. Something quite profound has happened to the Syrian people over the course of their violent and bitter two-year revolution. There is a sense that a page has been turned, and that Syrians will no longer tolerate political repression and violent intimidation.
I also got the sense that the culture of Syria and its civil society remain somewhat intact. In the village of Kansafar, near Kafarnabel, a local teacher named Iman proposes to buy a photocopy machine to duplicate all the books destroyed in the regimes mass destruction of local schools. Another initiative was the local decision to harvest only dead branches form trees for firewood — so as to protect the trees.
But for me, as a Syrian woman, the most poignant story of all was when a young girl named Heba proclaimed she wanted to be the first freely elected President of Syria. In the “new Syria,” a female leading the country might not be impossible.
Hind Aboud Kabawat is a lawyer, a member of the Syrian Centre for Dialogue in Toronto, and a senior researcher in at George Mason University.