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Thwaiba Hanafi, a Canadian citizen born in Syria, stands at the Turkish-Syrian border in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Thursday. Ms. Hanafi recently joined the Free Syrian Army and now acts as a co-ordinator of the Military Council of the FSA. (Daniel Etter for The Globe and Mail)
Thwaiba Hanafi, a Canadian citizen born in Syria, stands at the Turkish-Syrian border in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Thursday. Ms. Hanafi recently joined the Free Syrian Army and now acts as a co-ordinator of the Military Council of the FSA. (Daniel Etter for The Globe and Mail)

Syrian rebels: ‘I don’t think we need help from a woman from Canada’ Add to ...

When Thwaiba Kanafani first introduced herself to rebel commanders as someone who could help bring together the fractious Syrian opposition, she was met with skepticism and condescension.

What could a woman, and a woman from faraway Canada at that, really do for the uprising, they asked.

Ms. Kanafani shrugged aside the rejection. After weeks of meetings with opposition figures based in Turkey, she said she was spirited briefly across the border into Syria to record a call-to-arms video that has become a centrepiece of opposition propaganda. In it, she announces proudly that she has “come from Canada to answer the call of my homeland.”

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Her adventure, when it unravelled, unravelled quickly. On Monday, she won a post as a communications co-ordinator on a Free Syrian Army (FSA) committee at a Syrian refugee camp. That lasted barely three days. By midday Thursday, Ms. Kanafani was expelled from the council because of suspicion over her motives. “I left them,” she said. “I am not working with them any more because they say I am an Israeli spy.”

Many Syrian expatriates, watching the increasingly bloody struggle in their homeland, want desperately to play a part. Some laboriously assemble and disseminate data on civilian casualties inside Syria; others work with the opposition’s political front. Ms. Kanafani, a 40-year-old Toronto businesswoman and mother of two, took the more unusual step of travelling to the restive Turkish-Syrian border and offering her help to the disparate bands of rebel fighters.

It was a spectacularly swift comedown for Ms. Kanafani, who had aggressively fought her way inside the Free Syrian Army over the past weeks and donned camouflage fatigues to make the video urging “free” Syrian women to take up arms.

She said she ruffled the male members of the committee by insisting that it would only be effective if its leadership was kept to a small number of people. “It can’t work like this, with so many people and so many positions,” she said she told them. It was then that officers – she would not name them – asked how she got her ideas, then claimed she was being led by “someone else” and said she would be investigated for being an Israeli spy. “I am still confused about what happened,” said Ms. Kanafani, after recounting the incident.

The aim of the new committee was to unify the FSA in order to receive international support, said Fayez Amr, an officer who had defected from the Syrian army and lives in the camp. He confirmed that Ms. Kanafani had been invited to participate in a “communications” role.

According to Ms. Kanafani, other committee members had already accepted her ideas. But at the meeting Thursday, several people she had never met before arrived at the officer’s camp. She said they were members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the long-banned group that has emerged as important backers of the opposition but are accused by some activists of trying to control the revolution.

While she had previously defended the rebel officers in the camp, who are often accused of doing little for the people actually fighting inside of Syria, she said she had now reversed her opinion of them: “I don’t care for the people here. … The people inside are really fighting for something. The people here are fighting for positions.”

Originally from the Mediterranean island of Arwad, just over three kilometres from the Syrian coast, Ms. Kanafani left Syria in 1996 to work in the United Arab Emirates, and she immigrated to Canada four years later. There, she said, she opened a construction-consulting business in Toronto, married an Egyptian man with whom she had two children, and last year became a citizen.

When the Syrian uprising began in early 2011, she recalled, she was “very un-optimistic.”

She said she told people: “This regime is a very bad regime. … They have strong ties with so many countries. So it is not going to be easy to defeat them.”

She paid close attention as the violence in Syria increased, and began sending videos and writing letters to the leaders of different countries – including the United States, Canada, and Iran – asking them to intervene on behalf of the Syrian people. She was convinced there would be no end to the Assad regime without the help of the international community.

But she got no response and became increasingly frustrated. “So many people told us we did our best. We don’t know what is not working,” she said.

Earlier this year, with her family safely out of Syria, she decided to get more directly involved.

In May, Ms. Kanafani said, she flew to Egypt with her husband and children and managed to meet Syrian activists there. Then she resolved to go on her own to Turkey to make direct contact with the FSA.

At first, the FSA first refused to work with her. Ms. Kanafani said the suspicions came from her sudden appearance and aggressive desire to help. “It’s because I know what should be done,” she said. “I was trying to propose my ideas to a lot of people.”

Eventually, she said, she convinced them to trust her and was taken into Syria by a few rebels in late June to make the video that has attracted wide attention on the Internet. In it, she is seen backed by machine-gun-toting fighters and wearing a bandolier of bullets draped around her shoulders. “I am a daughter of Syria, and I came from Canada to answer the call of the country,” she says in the video.

Despite her newfound access, many of the military men were skeptical that she has anything substantive to contribute. “I don’t think we need help from a woman from Canada,” Ammar al-Sheikh, a member of the FSA who had heard of, but not met, Ms. Kanafani, said earlier this week.

Being a woman, she acknowledged, was a “barrier somehow.” But she prodded the rebels to break out of their traditional vision of how a Syrian woman should act.

When told to cover her hair by the fighters in Syria, she said she pushed back. “You guys need to be more open minded,” she said she told them. “I am a Muslim. I pray five times a day. It doesn’t mean I have to cover.”

It was not clear exactly what prompted rebel officers turn her out of the co-ordinating committee. Neither Mr. Amr nor any other FSA officer was available to comment on what happened at the meeting.

In Canada, Ms. Kanafani was involved in a group advocating a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, according to news accounts. Her views were not widely reported, but some version might have been brought to the attention of some officers, many of whom spent most of their lives on a war footing with Israel, and made them question her motives.

Ms. Kanafani said her views on Israel did not come up during the meeting. But, she said, “I am telling everyone clearly that I am willing to work with everyone in the whole world. For me, I am willing to work with Israel and work with America as long as this will make peace. This does not make me a spy for anyone. We eventually want to live without war.”

Ms. Kanafani’s efforts are likely to be seen as naive. And many in the West, including the Canadian government, remain wary about supporting the FSA because of its infighting and suspicion of infiltration by al-Qaeda.

Ms. Kanafani said that the experience had left her deeply concerned with the direction the Syrian revolution is headed, and whether it can unify. She said she will stay in Turkey for at least the next two weeks to see if she can help the FSA inside Syria.

If she can’t or runs out of money, Ms. Kanafani plans to return to Canada and leave the revolution behind. “I will forgot everything about what happened if I do not succeed. I do not want to remember this,” she vowed. “I will just move on and focus on my own life.”

 

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