What’s a nice Jewish boy from the Main Line doing working for Syrian revolutionaries?
“It’s the first thing that people ask me,” said 23-year-old Aaron Glickman of Merion. “It seems incongruous for whatever reason. I don’t see it as such.”
The 2013 Cornell University graduate just completed a three-month fellowship at the Washington, D.C., office of the National Coalition of Syrian and Revolution and Opposition Forces, which acts as a kind of quasi-embassy. Now he’s back in Philly, trying to figure out what’s next for him and still talking about the conflict that rages on with no end in sight.
Glickman said he was drawn to the organization out of a desire to help stop — or at least minimize — the humanitarian crisis resulting from the nearly 3-year-old Syrian civil war. And yes, he wanted to be part of the effort to bring down the government of President Bashar Assad.
“I am always a sympathizer with people who demand freedom and dignity,” said Glickman, who majored in government and focused on comparative politics. “The idea that there could be a transformative, democratizing way in Syria to me might be idealistic but I want to see it happen.
“People think I’m a young idealistic person. I’m not,” he added during an interview just days after completing his fellowship. “I’m fully aware of how hard things are. I’m fully aware of the challenges and how history is against the people of Syria. But that is not a reason to give up on an entire country.”
The armed conflict in Israel’s northern neighbor reportedly has left more than 100,000 dead and displaced more than 6 million people. The war has dogged policy makers. Many have criticized the Obama administration for failing to do more to arm rebel groups, while others have warned that a defeat for Assad could spell victory for radical Islamists.
U.S. policy toward the conflict came to a head this summer when a U.S. strike on Syria — in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons — appeared imminent. But then, in early September, the United States and Syria reached an agreement calling for the removal and destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Glickman, a Lower Merion High School graduate, said he’s always had an independent streak and looked to do things others thought maybe he shouldn’t. But he also grew up steeped in the Jewish community.
He became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, attended Perelman Jewish Day School and spent summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. In fact, he spent this past summer as a counselor at Young Judaea Midwest in Wisconsin, where he taught about Arabic culture.
He said he loves Jewish camping so much that he could see himself pursuing a career in the field although he is also considering graduate school to pursue Middle East policy. He has traveled to Israel numerous times to visit family, most recently in 2012, and went on the Ramah Israel Seminar the summer before he started Cornell.
He came to the Syrian cause, he said, through his interest in studying languages as well as international relations and diplomacy. At Cornell, once he finished his Spanish language requirement, a friend suggested he give Arabic a try. He took to the language and developed a growing interest in Middle Eastern and Arab culture, an interest he said that had little to do with his love of Israel.
In 2011, Glickman received a scholarship from the U.S. Department of Education to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo. He arrived not long after the mass protests that had led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Euphoria about what was being dubbed the Arab Spring was in the air, he said.
“The mood in Cairo at the time was unlike any I have seen in the rest of the world. People had done something they had not considered possible for their entire lives.”
Watching what’s happened there in the two years since has been difficult, he said.
“It is hard to watch violence erupt in places you are familiar with,” he said. “I had a very similar reaction during the second intifada. Something would happen in Tel Aviv and I’d recognize the area.”
He received another grant to study in Jordan and also spent a semester in Washington interning for the Project on Middle East Democracy, a non-governmental agency which, according to its website, is dedicated to promoting “genuine democracy” in the Middle East.
The National Coalition of Syrian and Revolution and Opposition Forces was formed in 2012. The umbrella group is based in Turkey but maintains offices in London, New York and Washington.
Glickman spent his time there working with mostly Syrian ex-pats who, he said, were primarily concerned with getting more humanitarian aid to civilians. He helped manage communications with other agencies and prepared reports and briefings.
During his fellowship, he said, he was upfront about his Jewishness and no one had any issues. The focus, he said, was always on the Syrian conflict and he didn’t get into discussions with his Syrian co-workers about Israel. He said he knows that Al Qaeda and other extremist groups are active in Syria, but stressed that they are not part of the coalition he worked for.
“There is a moderate opposition in Syria.They are not Americans, but they are the only people right now fighting both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda in the region,” he said. “They are essentially doing our work for us. Their values are more in line with us than anyone else in the region.”
Given that Assad is a close ally of Iran and Hezbollah, he said, Israel will be better off if he’s gone. Still, he doesn’t hold any illusions that the group he worked for would run and make peace with Israel, if it managed to achieve its goals.
But a rebel victory looks increasingly unlikely, he said, as Iran and Hezbollah have helped Assad turn the tide of the war. He still wishes that Western powers could do more.
At this point, he’s less interested in seeing a military strike and instead would like the United States to arm and train vetted rebel groups.
“I am very much disappointed with how much the political class in the U.S. has thrown up its hands, both to the political side of the crisis and the humanitarian crisis,” he said. “I think we have the opportunity, with no real risk to ourselves, beyond financial, to ease the suffering of a large number of people and to expedite freedom and a better quality of life.”