Connecting a global Syria

An interview with Rafif Jouejati

This interview is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

Rafif Jouejati is the co-founder and director of FREE-Syria. She has been involved with the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, The Day After Project, and Baytna-Syria. This interview took place in Berlin in January 2019 during a conference on Syrian diaspora coordination.

Syria Notes: Can you tell us what you do, what you’re fighting for?

Rafif Jouejati: What I do is an interesting question. I’m a management consultant by profession, which makes me think that I’m an expert in a great many things. What I’m fighting for is I think in line with the original goals of the revolution: freedom, dignity, justice, democracy for all Syrians. My background is that I was born in the United States to Syrian parents. My father was a career diplomat for Syria. He served his country from the time of independence until he passed away in 2003, so obviously he served every regime Syria ever had, but never joined a political party. And from him I learned the values of pacifism and democracy and equity for all.

Syria Notes: I want to talk to you about your project, the Syrian Freedom Charter. You wanted to provide a platform for Syrians, but always the context is changing—so can you describe the project, and where it is now?

Rafif Jouejati: So the project itself was intended to give Syrians a voice, to give them agency over their own future, and the idea was that the Syrian Freedom Charter could articulate the aspirations of the Syrian people, and our goal was to document those aspirations and summarise them into something that could help contribute to a future constitution.

One of the pledges the team made in developing this Freedom Charter was that we would publish it regardless of the results. So at the time we were working, we were seeing a gradual turn to jihadist Islam in Syria, we were seeing the presence of ISIS emerge, and other Islamist groups—not Islamic but Islamist—and so we knew that we might be faced with a result that we didn’t want, but we committed to publishing the Charter regardless.

Working with the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, we identified a team of one hundred activists throughout Syria in every governorate, and we developed a series of questions which we piloted in Gazantiep and Reyhanli and in some refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Once we had sufficient results from the pilots, we administered the survey, and we reached 50,333 Syrians altogether, across Syria and the neighbouring countries. We did an analysis of the results and we came out with a summarised Charter that in fact said that more than 50% of respondents wanted freedom, dignity, democracy, a secular state, a civil state, one where everybody could run for president, one where there are equal rights across the board.

We finished our study in 2014. Now of course the Syrian landscape and the political context have changed tremendously, but I believe that the Charter still represents the aspirations of the Syrian people. Once you strip away the power grabbing and the weapons, once you strip away some of the false premises that have been imposed on our country, I think we find that Syrians ultimately want to live in peace and security for everyone.

Syria Notes: We are here in Berlin trying to find ways to collaborate. What is the value of collaboration after eight years? What are your thoughts on collaboration?

Rafif Jouejati: My thoughts on collaboration are that Syrian communities by and large have not collaborated, and that’s why we’re looking now at eight years. I think our communities across the world and in Syria have a level of creativity and brilliance that is unmatched, and I think that if we could collaborate and be constructive with one another, and support one another, we could expose more brilliance, we could be innovative, and we could really have a profound impact on our futures.

Right now I think because of internal unhealthy competition, petty jealousies, ego issues, we have done our people a huge disservice.

Syria Notes: In the US now, where do you see the policy on Syria going? What are your fears? What are your hopes? And what are the chances there?

Rafif Jouejati: So let me start with the last part. I’m not sure there are a lot of chances with the United States government. I believe that the Trump administration is continuing some of the policies of the Obama administration, and unfortunately the Obama administration had an utter lack of strategy when it came to Syria.

Now at least the Obama administration had perhaps some ulterior motives; there might have been the possibility of striking a nuclear deal with Iran, there might have been other factors contributing to President Obama’s decision. President Obama was not an uneducated or ignorant person. On the other hand now we have President Trump who is uneducated, and who is ignorant, and so I worry that with his lack of strategy combined with his ignorance, things will only get worse from a Syrian perspective.

And this is evidenced by his publicly announced decision to withdraw all troops from Syria immediately, and then of backtracking, back-pedalling by senior administration officials who recognise that this kind of move would be extraordinarily foolish. So I don’t have any optimism for the Trump administration when it comes to Syria.

Syria Notes: A lot of people are writing Syria off at this point: ‘The fight is over, Assad has won.’ What are your thoughts on that?

Rafif Jouejati: I think the reality is that Assad and his backers have won the battle. They have won on the PR level for sure, because now the international community is focused on fighting ISIS and terrorism, and the Assad regime and its backers have very skilfully depicted any opposition as either terrorist in nature or bordering on terrorist. I think they’ve done an excellent job on that PR front, and I think we have to recognise that and acknowledge it. However I don’t think they have won the war. I think the spirit of the core values of freedom, dignity, democracy for all Syrians, are embedded in the Syrian psyche, and I think that over time, especially if we can collaborate and coordinate, and bring back that brilliance, that genius, I think we will ultimately win.

Syria Notes: Do you have any remarks for policy makers, or for people who are making decisions? Especially with HTS now taking control, and civil society being in danger?

Rafif Jouejati: You know, there will always be instances where the absence of the international community, and the absence of internationally accepted norms, will allow vacuums to occur, and that’s where mercenaries and other types of armed groups will come in and try to fill the vacuum. They might be carrying the flag of God or some other religious symbol, or bring a different type of dictatorship that perhaps claims to be secular, as we see with the Assad regime.

There will always be a type of dictatorship unless we can bring about a change in attitude, and that needs to be that there are human rights, that there is justice, and there is accountability, and governments must be transparent. Until we bring that cultural shift there’s always going to be a vacuum.

To policy makers, I would say that a lot of the chaos that’s in Syria is the fault of the international community, because when there were opportunities to change the course of the conflict, they were paralysed and failed to act, and now the Syrian people are paying the price.

I would also tell some of those policymakers to keep in mind that they are capable of changing this history, they are capable of looking at genocide and at atrocities, and understanding that they cannot allow dictators to pave the way for other dictators to commit similar crimes in other countries.

Syria Notes: What is the priority now for Syria?

Rafif Jouejati: There are so many things that are priorities—there are people who are starving to death. There are people who are freezing to death. There are people who have been displaced multiple times. There are hundreds of thousands of detainees, hundreds of thousands of disappeared. There are children living in rubble, children who have not been in school for seven or eight years. So I think everything is a priority.

I could not pinpoint one thing that is more important than others, and here’s where Syrian genius comes in—we have activist groups and civil society groups and humanitarians who have been working on every priority, and who are really trying to effect change in small communities, always peacefully, always through education, always through intellect, and hopefully in our collaboration.