ROME — Looking at images of carnage and mayhem flowing out of Syria today, especially the ferocious fighting over the city of Aleppo, it’s clear that the country is in crisis, and it often feels difficult to make a compelling case for hope that there’s any future beyond bloodshed and heartache.
Difficult, that is, until you meet someone like Abdul Karim Rihawi.
Rihawi is a Syrian businessman, whose livelihood once upon a time came from manufacturing and selling clothing — believe it or not, he owned a lingerie shop in downtown Damascus — until a chance experience in the 1990s brought him up close and personal with the brutality of the Syrian regime under then-President Hafez al-Assad.
Basically, Rihawi lost his wallet, including his Syrian ID card, and had to go to a local police station to make a report. He was detained, beaten and harassed, with a police official accusing him of having sold the ID on the black market to an enemy of the state.
Eventually released after family and friends intervened on his behalf, he began wondering about the health of a country that would allow its police and security services to behave in such a way with essentially no accountability or recourse.
Rihawi began reaching out to some lawyers and activists, and launched a journey that led to the founding of the Syrian Human Rights League, which has become one of the leading expressions of civil society in the country, documenting abuses on all sides of the conflict and striving to build a moderate, pro-democracy alternative to the status quo.
Rihawi was in Rome this weekend, working on a project together with an old friend of mine, Nicoletta Gaida, an Italian polyglot and activist who founded something called the “Ara Pacis Initiative,” a global not-for-profit organization dedicated to the human dimension of peace. Utterly by chance, my colleague Inés San Martín and I ran into Gaida and Rihawi Friday night at the Roman hotel where I typically stay.
Over the years, his leadership and reputation for integrity have put Rihawi in some fairly surreal positions. He told us that in 2013, for instance, ISIS kidnapped a group of roughly 200,000 Assyrian Christians, and reached out to Rihawi to see if he could broker ransom payments for their return.
That led him to several exchanges with an ISIS commander – including swapping messages with ISIS officials on both Skype and WhatsApp – and a secret rendezvous in a lounge of the Istanbul airport straight out of the pages of a John le Carré novel.
One of the things that surprised him most, Rihawi said, was how well-educated and disciplined the ISIS commander seemed, making him believe that he had high-level training and support. Also striking, he said, was the sense of moral purpose they projected.
“They see themselves as the good guys in this story,” he said. “He was firmly convinced that what they’re doing is right, and that God will reward them.”
Eventually the Christians were returned, Rihawi said, after paying roughly $50 million in ransom collected from the Assyrian community over the arc of several months’ time.
Yet ISIS, to hear Rihawi tell the story, is hardly the only threat to peace and security in the country, because he also sees the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the heir to his father, as deeply flawed.
When Rihawi says he’s worried about the estimated 300,000 perceived enemies of the state currently languishing in Syrian jails, for him that’s no abstract sentiment. He’s been arrested dozens of times for his criticism of the regime, including a two-week stint in jail in 2011 during which he was tortured and repeatedly beaten.
The pièce de résistance of that experience, he said, came when he was hanging by his arms in a jail cell after one beating that left him with several broken ribs, and a general from another security service who’d long been after him came into the room.
“He ordered the guard to put me on the floor and use my body to clean it up, like a mop,” Rihawi recalled. “Then he shoved his boot into my mouth until I lost consciousness.”
“Obviously, he was sending a message that I was supposed to shut up,” he said.
Rihawi eventually fled to Egypt, where he worked with pro-democracy forces during the Arab Spring, and is now seeking temporary political asylum in Germany. His desire, however, is to return to Syria and be part of a peaceful, moderate revolution.
“I told my case officer I won’t spend one more minute in Germany than I have to,” he said. “I belong in Syria.”
At a distance, the perception one often has of Syria’s minority communities, including the roughly ten percent of the population that’s Christian, is that they tend to be strongly pro-Assad because they see him as the only realistic alternative to the Islamic State.
Rihawi has a message for Christians tempted to think that way, and for anybody else who may be willing to listen – including, pointedly, the U.S. government. In essence, it’s that phrasing the situation as an alternative between Assad and ISIS is a false choice.
“Assad wants you to believe that,” he said. “Assad is actually supporting ISIS … they basically have a deal.”
In reality, he insists, there is a groundswell inside Syria for something different, a dramatic break with the past that would take the country in a moderate, democratic, and stable direction.
“Syrians are not radicals,” he said. “They hate ISIS, but they also don’t support the regime. They want real change, and if given a chance, there are all kinds of people on the ground there who would lead it.”
Shoring up Assad as an alternative to ISIS, he believes, is simply prolonging the country’s agony.
“If Assad were to be replaced by a moderate government with the people’s support, ISIS would be gone within three months,” he said. “I guarantee it.”
Such assurances have been given before, of course, and it’s often hard to know how much faith to put in them, given the almost unfathomable tensions and complexities of the Middle East, and the rather dismal history of other recent experiments in democratic reform.
On the other hand, meeting Rihawi – who doesn’t simply offer up a feel-good case for optimism, but who’s been willing to pay a price in his own flesh to press his country to realize the best version of itself – at least suggests an alternative trajectory beyond a police state interrupted by periodic bouts of war.
I don’t know whether the future of Syria belongs to figures such as Abdul Karim Rihawi. What I do know, however, is that the place would be fascinating to watch if it did.
Information on Gaida’s Ara Pacis Initiative can be found here.