Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, General Coordinator of the Higher Negotiating Committee, addresses Syrian American community
Prime Minister Hijab addressed the Syrian American community on Monday evening to brief them on his latest meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and to share the Higher Negotiating Committee's approach toward the Geneva talks.
The Prime Minister thanked the community for their devoted support over the past 5 years of the Syrian Revolution and asked that they redouble their efforts to support the Revolution before the U.S. Government and Congress.
The Syrian American community assured Prime Minister Hijab that they fully support his leadership and the leadership of the Higher Negotiating Committee and they pledged their continued and strengthened effort in support of the Higher Negotiating Committee's stance.
The Syrian American Council, America’s largest and oldest grassroots Syrian American organization, attended President Obama’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism from February 18th to 20th at the White House. The summit aimed to highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence and was attended by a large number of local officials and world leaders.
“We were honored by the invitation of the Obama Administration to this important summit,” said Mirna Barq, the President of the Syrian American Council. “The Syrian American community is deeply concerned by the growing reach of terrorist organizations in Syria, which pose a grave threat both to Syrians and to Americans. As we have noted for years, the Assad regime’s ongoing brutal campaign against its own population creates the conditions for terrorist groups like ISIS to prosper.”
SAC believes that this summit advanced an important dialogue on cooperation between the U.S., the democratic Syrian opposition, and the Syrian American community to combat this menace. As Bassam Barabandi, political adviser to SAC, elaborated: “We made clear to the Administration that the Assad regime, a state-sponsor of terrorism, could not be a partner in countering violent extremism.”
Secretary of State John Kerry noted in February 2014 that the Assad regime has only served as a magnet for terrorist organizations throughout the world to grow in Syria. A recent analysis by the respected intelligence firm IHS Jane’s concludes that the Assad regime has been “ignoring ISIS” by only targeting the group in 6% of its 2014 operations. Most regime attacks, like most ISIS attacks, were directed at bastions of more moderate Syrian rebels.
The Islamic State continues its draconian oppression of hundreds of thousands of Syrians living under its rule. In January 2014, seven months before American air strikes were launched against ISIS, Syrian civilians in opposition areas launched a protest movement and armed rebellion against ISIS in northern Syria. Since then, more than 7000 Syrian rebels have perished in the fight against ISIS. The largest massacre in Syria committed by ISIS to date remains its brutal slaughter of 700 members of the anti-Assad Al-Sha’itat tribe in August 2014, after a failed attempt by the Sha’itat to evict ISIS from territory near the Iraq-Syria border.
In his pursuit of foreign policy deals with Syria and Iran, President Obama has taken a soft approach. As a result, Syria and Iran have taken advantage with aggressive opportunism.
Once Bashar al-Assad started firing on unarmed protesters in the spring of 2011, the Obama administration felt a foreign policy win slipping through its fingers. U.S. officials had spent months engaging the Syrian leader in indirect talks with Israel over a deal in which Syria would begin disengagement with Iran in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The prospects of the deal, which would ostensibly split up the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah triumvirate, were apparently so attractive for the United States that American representatives quietly continued engagement with Assad well into his brutal crackdowns of 2011, with the belief that they could retain his usefulness. Secretary of State Clinton, even after the uprising began, continued to call Assad a “reformer.”
Once Assad’s crimes became too great to ignore, Obama and Clinton began to make statements against his brutality. That did not mean the end of engagement, however. Then-Senator John Kerry’s staff and other officials maintained contact with the Syrian government to try and convince Assad to stop the killing and listen to the demands of his people. Given his role as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his personal relationship with the Assads, Kerry was Obama’s best hope for moderating the Syrian leader’s domestic response and for salvaging the coveted deal with Israel.
In the first few months of the uprising, Kerry’s approach led Assad to the conclusion that the United States viewed his government as indispensable. Regardless of public condemnations from Obama and Clinton, Assad felt that he still had a special place with the administration. Though the Israel deal fell through, Assad’s feeling of a “special status” with the United States was reinforced through various episodes, including Obama’s backing off of his red line over chemical weapons, the soft U.S. approach in the Geneva peace conferences, and the recent limited air campaign against ISIS, which ruled out Assad regime targets and has hurt the opposition forces backed by the United States. Indeed, the United States continues to exhibit a willingness to work—or at least coexist—with Assad, despite its claims to the contrary.
The United States took the same soft approach to Iran in an attempt to secure a nuclear deal. Reports about multiple letters sent from Obama to Ayatollah Khamenei, plans to establish a trade office in Tehran, and the repeated extension of nuclear talks despite the absence of any real breakthrough sends a message to the Iranian government that it too is viewed as indispensable.
America’s friendly overtures come at a time when Iran is a driving force behind instability in the region, stoking sectarianism in its pursuit of dominance throughout the Middle East. Since the Iraq war of 2003, Iran has doubled down on its support of Shi‘i factions to establish influence in fragile states such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. As the war in Syria increases in severity and the anti-ISIS conflict rages, Iran’s sectarian spear has never been sharper. In Iraq today, the United States’ anti-ISIS coalition operates alongside Iranian-supported Shi‘i militias who have repeatedly carried out massacres against Sunni civilians. In Syria, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shi‘i groups provide the backbone for Assad’s severely weakened military.
While consistently declaring that Assad can play no role in Syria’s transition, the White House continues to overlook Iran’s complicity in Assad’s crimes against humanity. Several Syrian activists have reported to us suggestions from the U.S. government that Iran could serve as the primary security guarantor in Syria post-Assad. If the United States relies on Iran as a key partner in Syria and Iraq, it will create decades of pan-regional sectarian conflict. Iran has a track record of manipulating sectarian politics; propping up undemocratic single-identity governance; and assisting governments and non-state groups as they commit atrocities. This package offered by Tehran is a recipe for extended conflict in any Arab state. Particularly in the case of ISIS, Shi‘i solutions to a Sunni problem will only breed more recruits and foster local sympathy for ISIS.
Obama has chosen to turn a blind eye to Iranian malfeasance throughout the region in a gamble that the United States will be able to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. U.S.-led sanctions have been linked only to the nuclear program, not to Iranian regional interventionism. As a result, Iran has felt free to foster instability and sectarianism across the Middle East, which has led to civil war in Syria and Iraq and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Obama’s frustration about inconvenient Middle East dynamics makes the nuclear deal an even more enticing goal for his national security staff. After a number of prominent foreign policy failures—the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, the collapse of post-American Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and the raging civil war in Syria—the president seems desperate to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran as a bright point in an otherwise dim foreign policy legacy. Yet this has only served to embolden Iran and intensify its destabilizing and sectarian intervention in the Arab world, at great human cost.
This piece discusses the shortcomings of the international response to the crisis in Syria. Through the generous amounts of humanitarian aid, as well as the disproportionate focus of the media on extremist elements in the opposition, the authors assert that the global response has been to treat symptoms instead of to directly address the cause of the Syrian crisis. The United States needs to change its paradigm, and to lead the global community in confronting the Syrian Regime head-on.