Sunday, 31 July 2016

Making the Anti-Assad Case in Washington

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 'Few political movements have a harder case to make to the world, or to the American public and its leaders, than Syria’s secular opposition. And few movements have more reason to feel discouraged or abandoned right now. An organization like the Syrian American Council, for example, faces a morass in both Syria and Washington, D.C., pleading the ever-imperiled case for supporting democracy in Syria even as the conflict worsens and attention to situation flags in the U.S.

 A collection of non-jihadist rebel groups was recently encircled by the Syrian army in their former stronghold in Aleppo, and are coping with a number of steep geopolitical hurdles outside the country: the perception of Assad as a partner in fighting terrorism, the widespread conflation of the Syrian opposition with Sunni jihadism, a U.S. administration wary of antagonizing the pro-Assad Iranian regime and seemingly set on brokering the opposition’s surrender, and a U.S. and western public allergic to anything that even smacks of expanded involvement in the Middle East.

 But the people making the anti-Assad case in Washington are not exactly discouraged or demoralized. On July 20, while most of the country fixated on the chaos unfolding at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I met with Chad Brand and Shlomo Bolts of the Washington, D.C.-based Syrian American Council (SAC), a group whose mission is to “organize and advocate for a free, democratic, and pluralistic Syria through American support.”

 SAC backs things like no-fly zones, the establishment of humanitarian safe-areas in Syria, and U.S. weapons and training assistance for the Syrian opposition. They’ve gotten a cold hearing from the White House, and have largely given up on lobbying Obama’s inner circle. At the same time, they push an attainable legislative agenda and have had some successes in Congress. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce, once a problematic member of Congress from the Syrian opposition’s perspective, is now a full-fledged ally; earlier this month he helped introduce a bill authored by Democrat Eliot Engel that would expand U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime.

 As Brand, one of SAC’s government relations officers, explained, Congress is “nipping at” Boeing’s controversial sale of aircraft to the Iran government, with some members of Congress insisting on measures that would ensure the planes aren’t used to ferry weapons and personnel to Syria. SAC has successfully advocated for including funding for the Syrian “train and equip” program in defense authorization bills.

 And they often get a sympathetic hearing from members of Congress and their staff when they recount the abuses of the Assad regime and the dangers the Syrian government poses to global order. Congressmen and their staff sometimes learn of specific regime atrocities for the first time from SAC: “To a person they say, ‘We didn’t know about that and we wish we knew.’ The problem is that the administration doesn’t brief us on these things, Brand said. He emphasized that SAC is a nonpartisan organization, “even if and when we get stymied by the administration.”

 Not even the potentially dubious choices of their own government, or the recent global wave of attacks by supporters of ISIS, whose “capital” is in the Syrian city of Raqqa; or the reality of ceaseless death and destruction in a strategically vital part of the world, have been enough to really make Americans care about Syria, even during a fractious election year. If anything, one of the two major U.S. political parties is tacking in a sharply isolationist direction, with Donald Trump alleging that Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton had supported regime change in Syria during his July 21 acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination.

 The fact that Americans have largely tuned out the moral and humanitarian dimensions of the conflict doesn’t mean SAC’s goals are hopeless. Bolts believes there a pragmatism to the American public and its leaders that won’t allow a situation like Syria’s to endure forever. “My own personal view is that something happens in the American political cycle when the public sees a lot of people dying repeatedly,” said Bolts. “There’s awareness for the first few massacres, and then after awhile people wonder, ‘What’s next?’ And if large numbers of people are killed, it deadens sensitivities. The main hope for us is to get people to understand the costs of their inactions….it’s not practical to ignore when tens of thousands of people are being killed.”

 “Long-term, long-game, there’s reason for optimism,” he added. “It could just be a much longer time frame than a lot of us were hoping for.” '

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