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What Happened in Rihaniya, Turkey

In mid September, in the small dynamic town of Rihaniya on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, a very important gathering of about 80 organizations of the Syrian opposition assembled to find a pathway in the current strategic and political jungle called the bloody cold forest of the Syrian revolution. All those attending understood that what they are indeed facing is the moment of truth.

More questions than answers covered the walls: What will they really do? Is the Obama strategy coherent? Is it really a long-term commitment? What will happen to the cause of change in Syria? Could the ISIL be defeated? How? To what extent would American and international support be reliable this time?

Almost each and every person had a different view than the others. But they universally shared one objective that they saw more clearly than ever before: The Syrian revolution has to be saved.

It was clear to all that the revolution is threatened with being crushed in a conflict that has nothing to do with its spirit. The revolution was not a terrorist act. It was a scream in the face of a brutal dictator, a cry for freedom and dignity. It was not ISIL or Al Nusrah. If, in the beginning, the brutal response of Bashar resulted in violence, that is what brought us to where we are today, and here we are. This imposed violence grew like a snowball to turn the lives of all into hell on that little tiny corner of earth. They found out the hard way: violence led to the hijacking of their revolution by those who muster brutality better than anyone else: the Assad regime and ISIL.

In the crowded hall of the meeting, this much was certain—the choice is now whether to give up, or to start a second phase of the revolution that is conscious of all the lessons written in the blood of 200,000 Syrians.

To give up was to simply surrender to the killer, asking him for mercy and promising never to demand freedom or dignity again. Life without any freedom is life anyway—sort of. To continue to carry on the fight would be to ask for more pain and suffering at the hands of the two barbarian gangs that are strangling the neck of the revolution, each from its side.

Someone stood to talk about naming a criterion that has to be established to measure against in any debate. And someone else said that the criterion must be what the people in the villages and towns want. Are they willing to carry on? The answer came from all the groups, which hailed from all corners of Syria: after the blood of 200 thousands and the suffering of millions of refugees, the people are more determined than they ever were to continue fighting. No one disputed that.

So be it. The fight will go on.

The debate then moved to the really hard choices that had to be made. Each group explained what it sees as “the terrible mistakes” made by the opposition in the past. Each understood that they were not up to the historical test and the people’s aspirations. And all, or almost all, were determined to carve a different path on the rugged terrain of North and South Syria.

But their Achilles heel was that they cannot confront the regime with their bare hands. And those who offered support from the region made it clear: it will not be free. How to avoid the trap? The US prefers to work through the allies in the region, but the allies have their own agendas and their own calculations.

One of the most prominent leaders of Al Nusrah resides in Amman and arranges his meetings in street cafes. Ankara proved it can impose its equations, even at the cost of wiping out the whole leadership of an organization. Each of the regional powers has its own vision. But these players are like the “you know who” we cannot live with and cannot live without! It is impossible to face the unrestrained brutality of the regime or ISIL with bare hands or deep prayers.

Then the message was formulated. If the United States is assigning each member of the regional allies in the coalition a “portion” of the opposition, it must be clear that this should be based on specific and monitored conditions: the only objective is to fight Bashar, ISIL and Al Nusrah and never to impose a set of unrelated objectives on the opposition; to fight terrorism (and not to use it as a tool); and, to fight ideological extremism with the counter-teaching explicit in their “raison d’etre”: Freedom and Dignity.

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