Syrian Exiles Push For U.S. Action

With War Unfolding, Assad Opponents Push for Safe Zones

Battling To Be Heard: Syrian exiles are trying to get Washington’s attention for their struggle.
getty images
Battling To Be Heard: Syrian exiles are trying to get Washington’s attention for their struggle.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 30, 2012, issue of February 03, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

“We believe it doesn’t have to be a Libya-style bombing campaign,” Abdulhamid said. What most activists are asking for is a supply of light weapons to the opposition, a maritime blockade to stop the Syrian military from rearming and the establishment of safe zones near the Syrian-Turkish border. These zones could provide shelter to activists and refugees, but would require the declaration of no-fly and no-access rules and the potential use of military force to carry them out.

The administration has rejected such proposals, making clear that, among other things, it lacks the international backing it had during the uprising in Libya. “It’s important to note that no member of the Security Council is advocating for military intervention in Syria, as the Arabs did when they initiated the action for Libya,” Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a January 23 meeting in New York with the American Jewish Committee.

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which supports. military action by the United States to maintain democracy in the Middle East, lamented this position. “People think you need a perfect situation, like we had in Libya, before we intervene,” he said. “Unfortunately, Libya has become the threshold test, and if that’s what we are waiting for, it will never happen.”

Ziadeh has been unable to return home to Syria since 2007, when the government issued an arrest warrant for him shortly after he came to the United States. With several other activists, he founded the Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies, a think tank and advocacy group dedicated to advancing democracy in Syria. The center’s push for increased pressure from America on Assad includes meetings with members of Congress and administration officials, and appeals in the media to move the Syrian issue to the front burner.

“Obviously, the administration has taken some excellent steps,” Ziadeh said, “but since calling for Assad to step down in September, the U.S. has been leading from behind. If we miss the opportunity now, it will never come again.”

Ziadeh, who openly met with Clinton last August, said he was called to a meeting at the Syrian Embassy in Washington and told that information on his anti-government activities had been sent to security forces in Syria. He said his mother was interrogated and informed that if she told her son “to be silent,” she would be granted an exit visa to visit him. A call to the Syrian embassy seeking comment on Ziadeh’s claim was not returned.

Ziadeh is one of the few Syrian activists to communicate with American Jewish groups. He appeared twice at events organized by the AJC, a group that has taken a leading role in supporting Syrian opposition. A video of one of his speeches was posted on YouTube, presumably by pro-regime activists, with a title describing Ziadeh as a spy.

Two Syrian dissidents in the United States who gave an interview to Israel’s daily Yediot Aharonot without disclosing their identity are now in hiding after the state-run TV in Syria exposed their names and accused them of treason. The report also included a fabricated letter in which the newspaper supposedly acknowledges their identity.

Abdulhamid said that talking to Israelis and to Jewish groups is a matter of controversy within the Syrian exile community, but he is among those who maintain contacts with Jewish activists in Washington. “It’s true that at times we are demonized when we do so, but we forget that if we want our rights, we need to communicate,” he said. “We need to develop diplomatic skills.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.