Washington — They may be disunited and unskilled in the ways of Washington, but as carnage continues in Syria, exiled Syrian dissidents in the United States are urging the Obama administration to actively support opposition forces struggling to bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A loose network of activists — some newly arrived, but most part of an established Syrian exile community — are urging the administration to set up a safe zone within Syria on the country’s border with Turkey. This could provide shelter for dissidents being hunted down by the Assad regime, but would almost certainly require some form of military intervention by the United States.
Though pursuing their advocacy thousands of miles from home, the Syrian activists are not clear of danger. As the conflict between the Syrian government and dissidents has intensified, they say the struggling Damascus regime has increased its effort to discredit the émigrés as American puppets and to intimidate them by harassing family members left behind.
“The Syrian Embassy here was operating as a security branch of the Assad regime. They sent reports to Damascus about all my moves, and after that my mother was interrogated by the security forces,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident who has been advocating on behalf of the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian uprising, which broke out as part of the Arab Spring last March, has cost the lives of more than 5,000 activists so far, according to the United Nations, and is far from nearing its end. Forces loyal to Assad forcefully lashed out at protesters, and a monitoring mission sent to Syria by the Arab League was unsuccessful in stopping the bloodshed.
Over the past 10 months, the United States has gradually stopped expressing concern and now openly demands that Assad step down. The United States has also embraced the Syrian opposition. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has made a point of meeting publicly with exiled dissidents. But the administration has stopped short of even suggesting any forceful intervention, preferring instead to see the Arab League take a leading role in dealing with Syria.
Syrian Americans, a community estimated at 300,000, have mobilized in response to the events back home. But the community has yet to galvanize around any of the three main opposition groups — the National Council of Syria, the Syrian National Coordination Committee or the Free Syrian Army. With no central organization coordinating Syrian Americans’ advocacy efforts, a dozen or so pro-democracy Syrian groups now operate in the United States alongside individual activists who work outside the groups.
“In the Syrian community, dissidents were always isolated,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, who has been in exile in the United States since 2005. “Because of this reality, we had to develop our own identity.”
In the period preceding the Arab Spring outbreak, the Syrian community saw an infusion of opposition figures and political activists who fled Syria in recent years and are now leading the call on behalf of the opposition movement.
Abdulhamid and his fellow dissidents divide their time between supporting the opposition in Syria through social networking and spreading information and lobbying American decision-makers and the American public on the need for a more active role for the United States. They tread a thin line, trying to prod Washington to action, but on the other not wanting to be seen as driving the United States to war.