The Washington Diplomat / September 2013
By Larry Luxner
Najib Ghadbian’s sixth-floor office on Pennsylvania Avenue — facing the Old Post Office Pavilion and within view of the Capitol — is a long way from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where for years Ghadbian taught political science to aspiring young Razorbacks eager to explore the complexities of the Middle East.
Now, the professor has a new job title: unofficial Washington envoy for a coalition of rebels battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“This is a political recognition, not a legal recognition, which means I can’t be called an ambassador,” said Ghadbian, who’s officially a “representative.” At least that’s what it says on his business card, which bears the five-pointed logo of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
Ghadbian (pronounced gad-BAHN) spent an hour last month outlining for The Washington Diplomat his vision for a prosperous, democratic Syria free of tyranny, and how his group — known in Arabic as Etilaf — plans to make that happen.
First, though, comes legitimacy.
“After the formation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition on Nov. 11, 2012, the Friends of Syria held a summit in Morocco that was attended by 114 countries. They collectively recognized the SOC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. While that isn’t full legal diplomatic recognition, it did lead us to ask for representation in Washington,” Ghadbian explained. “Now we’re asking the State Department to hand the Syrian Embassy over to us.”
But a State Department spokeswoman clarified that while the decision “was a political step to underscore that we fully support the Syrian Opposition Coalition,” it is “not tantamount to recognition of the SOC as the new government of Syria, and not a change in the current government’s international obligations.”
Nevertheless, Ghadbian and his staff of eight full-time employees and three interns are clearly energized by President Obama’s announcement last year that the SOC “is now inclusive, reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime.”
But Ghadbian, 50, isn’t the only one who dreams of getting rid of Assad. An alphabet soup of rebel groups, coalitions and terrorist organizations is vying for power in a struggle against the Assad regime that has killed more than 100,000 people and forced nearly 2 million Syrians to seek refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and other countries since the uprising began in March 2011. Another 4 million have been internally displaced, and at least 6.8 million Syrians require urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. The world body also estimates that by the end of 2013, there will be 3.5 million Syrian refugees and that a further 1.9 million throughout the region will need emergency help as a result of Syria’s chaos.
In fact, when protests against the Assad regime broke out in Daraa — sparking the current civil war — Ghadbian’s hometown of Al-Tall had about 110,000 inhabitants. Today it’s home to nearly 800,000 people, most of them internal refugees displaced by the fierce battles raging in and around nearby Damascus.
Graphic images of atrocities committed both by government troops as well as rebels — from children suffocating, presumably from a chemical agent, to soldiers being beheaded and their organs eaten — have horrified the world and fueled demands that the United States do more to stop the carnage. Those demands grew louder in late August when rebels said the regime mounted a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb, just as U.N. inspectors were entering the country to look into previous allegations of chemical weapons use. Assad in turn pointed the finger at the rebels, and the fog of Syria’s war only grew murkier.
“The scale of this humanitarian tragedy has surpassed any recent conflict we can think of,” Ghadbian told us. “We are not asking for U.S. boots on the ground. But short of that, so many things can be done. Believe me, if the U.S. and its allies decide to carry out air strikes [against Assad’s forces], that would lead to the collapse of the regime.”
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The administration is now grappling with a response to the alleged chemical weapons attack, including the possibility of a cruise missile strike, but the calculation is not that simple. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in July that any U.S. involvement in Syria’s sectarian bloodbath, whether it’s air strikes or safe zones, would be a mammoth undertaking that could mire America in a full-fledged war, all at a time of economic constraint.
Among the potential costs: $1 billion a month and hundreds of aircraft to establish a no-fly zone in Syria; $500 million a year and hundreds or thousands of U.S. troops to train, advise and assist opposition forces; limited airstrikes would run in the billions of dollars and could spark retaliatory attacks; long-range strikes would necessitate “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers”; and securing Syria’s chemical weapons could require $1 billion a month, thousands of troops, setting up a no-fly zone and launching missile strikes.
Most ominously, Dempsey, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, warned that, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid…. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
Given those unsavory prospects, the Obama administration has focused its Syria effort largely on aid and diplomacy. The United States has so far contributed more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance since the conflict erupted — making it the single-largest aid donor to Syria. It’s also pegged its hopes on a political resolution, trying to convince Russia to curb its support of Assad.
But Moscow has its own calculations. Assad is a lucrative arms buyer who gives Russia a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean with the naval base at Tartus, and if he’s toppled, the political vacuum could leave Islamic extremists setting up shop in Russia’s backyard.
So for now, the United States has been working with Russia on a “Geneva II” international peace conference to bring the Assad government and opposition groups together, perhaps sometime this fall. But squabbling over who should participate and what should be discussed has repeatedly delayed the meeting. And with charges that chemical weapons poisoned hundreds of civilians and Assad’s army making tactical gains on the battlefield, there’s a strong chance the conference won’t happen at all.
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Ghadbian bemoans that “the failure of the international community has emboldened Assad to carry out his atrocities. When he sees the Obama administration not taking leadership, he believes he can really win. Secondly, his friends have been extremely supportive. Russia has used its veto three times [at the U.N. Security Council]. Iran provides $450 million a month to this regime; otherwise it would have collapsed long ago.”
As Tehran and Moscow continue to prop Assad up, Ghadbian is becoming impatient with the White House, just five blocks down from his own office.
“The weakness is the lack of political leadership, which should be provided by the Obama administration,” he argues. “What we need is a leader for this alliance. We appreciate U.S. support, and politically they’re saying the right things. But I see a lack of political leadership, and that’s empowering Russia. One of the reasons Russia is aggressive is they don’t see the United States doing much. Even if the U.S. doesn’t want to do it, let the allies do it.”
This summer, President Obama did authorize sending small arms to vetted Syrian rebels, despite worries (shared by some members of Congress, who initially blocked his plan) that those weapons might empower extremists and enflame a region already awash in guns.
But Ghadbian insists that the Free Syrian Army, led by Gen. Salim Idriss, has “worked hard to assure these countries the weapons would not fall into the wrong hands.”
Yet some say there are no “right” hands in Syria. Last month, the Associated Press obtained a letter Dempsey wrote to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) flat out stating that the administration believes the rebels fighting Assad wouldn’t support U.S. interests even if they were to seize power now.
“The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance,” Dempsey wrote. “But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”
And the Syria tinderbox is only becoming more explosive with the influx of Islamists flocking to the country to wage jihad. The bloodshed stems not only from fighting between Assad’s troops and rebels but also between moderate anti-Assad factions and more extremist groups like al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), whose objective is to turn largely secular Syria into an Islamic state. (At one point, Ghadbian’s coalition tacitly supported the Nusra Front and asked the U.S. to reconsider designating it a terrorist group.)
Ghadbian, however, contends that the emergence of those lethal groups is partly the result of U.S. inaction.
“A year and a half ago, there was no extremism in Syria. There was the Free Syrian Army, and it was the lack of support for those moderate forces that in fact attracted the extremists,” Ghadbian told The Diplomat.
Even so, the SOC envoy insists the number and influence of those Islamists have been greatly exaggerated.
“I’m always checking the percentage of extremists on the ground. It’s a very small percentage — maybe 7 or 8 percent of all fighters — but they are definitely louder and more visible, and they have a lot of finances. That makes their presence much larger than the reality. Having said that, we are extremely concerned about their growing presence.”
But Middle East security expert Anthony H. Cordesman says this isn’t a matter of percentages.
“It’s a matter of who controls the weapons and who’s perceived as the strongest fighters,” said Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Syria is not composed of extremists who think of themselves in polarized terms. The vast majority of people are not fighters at all. But that doesn’t mean the extremists can’t take over or are not [already] taking over.”
And American reticence has inadvertently bolstered these extremists, he argues.
“The U.S. has now effectively dithered for a year and a half. The momentum of rebel success has been reversed, and a lack of outside support has weakened Syrian moderates and strengthened Sunni Islamist extremists,” Cordesman wrote in a recent commentary.
That’s why Cordesman says the United States must show leadership now.
“The fact is, the situation in Syria is simply too unstable for any current power structure to be able to say it can emerge as the key faction in the future,” he told us. “This is particularly true of moderate factions. We have enough historical experience in Egypt and Tunisia to realize that, if Assad falls and the Baath government collapses, whatever faction initially emerges may not last for a year.
“Having said that, the problem is if you don’t provide the moderates with outside aid, you effectively create a Syria where there really are only two choices: the Assad regime or Sunni Islamic extremists. The more these countries lack support for their moderates, the more they are forced to choose between one extreme or the other.”
Cordesman, whose resume includes U.S. assignments in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, added that people like Ghadbian don’t necessarily represent the emerging power structure among Syrian rebels on the front lines. “These people are often selected for their visibility in the West, or they are the compromise that everyone agreed to,” he told us. “This is tied very much to their ability to get funds.”
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Ghadbian is indeed a familiar face in the West, although he’s also been exposed to government-sponsored atrocities.
In 1980, during a particularly brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood by the current Syrian president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, one of Ghadbian’s closest friends was arrested and tortured for a week. His crime: being in a house where someone was reading the Muslim Brotherhood’s banned newsletter and not having reported what he had seen. For that, Ghadbian said his friend spent 13 years in prison.
“This is why I fled my country,” he recalled. Ghadbian went to the United Arab Emirates, where he studied political science, later doing graduate work at Rutgers University and the graduate school at the City University of New York. In 1999, he followed his wife, Syrian-born writer Mohja Kahf, to the University of Arkansas, where she was teaching literature. He landed an assignment as a visiting professor at the university and remained in Fayetteville until taking up his current position last January.
Ghadbian’s official status is somewhat akin to that of Maen Rashid Areikat, chief of the Palestinian Authority delegation in Washington, but less than that of Ali Aujali, who was Libya’s ambassador under Muammar Qaddafi and continued as ambassador after he turned against the dictatorship and began representing the rebels.
“The Libyans received full [State Department] recognition right away because most of their diplomatic representatives defected. This hasn’t really happened for us,” Ghadbian said. “For the U.S. to recognize any group, you have to have a government that must be on the ground and able to pass legislation. We are not at that phase yet.”
Syria’s last ambassador here was the outspoken Imad Moustapha, who held the post from 2004 until December 2011. Now Assad’s envoy to China, Moustapha was accused by the State Department of ordering espionage activities against Syrian dissidents in Washington, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.
“I ran into Imad Moustapha once or twice and we didn’t like each other, to put it mildly,” said Ghadbian. “I told him at a public forum in 2006, why don’t you defect and join the democratic opposition?”
But Moustapha, who’s been quiet over the last year, unabashedly threw his lot in with Assad, while Ghadbian hopes to take up the mantle of the opposition in Washington, D.C. — perhaps one day as an official ambassador.
Joel Gordon, director of the University of Arkansas’s King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies where Ghadbian taught, says the former associate professor is a natural-born diplomat.
“Najib has been in this country a long time, he’s raised three kids here, and in terms of articulating the opposition’s position to an American audience, he’s really good,” Gordon told us in a phone call from Fayetteville. “Najib has been very heartfelt in trying to make this coalition as broad-based and as democratic as possible. Given where this is going, they’re in a very tenuous position right now.”
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees with that assessment.
“Najib’s been with the revolution since the beginning,” Tabler said. “He’s somebody I’ve known since even before the revolution, but because the opposition is divided, you have other voices besides Etilaf, and that poses a challenge for the SOC, whether they’re here or anywhere.”
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In fact, the SOC is variously referred to as the Syrian National Coalition, or SNC — not to be confused with the Syrian National Council, also called the SNC. This convoluted jumble of acronyms mirrors the fractured nature of the rebels, who are further splintered between political exiles abroad and fighters on the ground.
Indeed, the rebels are an inchoate bunch, and that has prevented other nations from coalescing around a unified leadership — unlike in Libya, where a clear transitional authority quickly emerged during that country’s revolution.
In contrast, Ghadbian’s coalition has seen a parade of presidents and prime ministers come and go over the last year, as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other powers jockey for influence. It has also struggled to deliver aid to beleaguered Syrians or control the militias operating in the country.
Ostensibly, the SOC does have the support of the Supreme Military Council and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council — a six-member bloc that includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, another prominent opposition group formed in November 2011, before the creation of the SOC, holds 22 out of 60 seats in the coalition but also strives to be its own independent voice. The Syrian National Coalition, in fact, was formed to supersede the council, which had been plagued by infighting. But the council still holds significant sway as one of Syria’s main opposition blocs.
Also part of this alphabet soup is the National Coordination Committee (NCC), which was formed in September 2011 and is comprised of 13 left-leaning political parties, three Kurdish parties, and independent political and youth activists, according to a recent BBC report, which also noted that the group is wary of the Islamists within the SNC. The NCC supports dialogue with the Assad regime and opposes any form of foreign military intervention; it instead urges economic sanctions and other diplomatic measures to increase pressure on Assad.
The FSA, formed in August 2011 by army deserters based in Turkey, is now led by Gen. Salim Idriss and claims to have as many as 40,000 men under its command. But analysts believe it’s more like 10,000; either way, the FSA is greatly outnumbered by the Syrian Army.
It is also increasingly clashing with Islamic extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is believed to have 6,000 fighters and has claimed responsibility for major attacks in Syria’s main cities. The rival Syrian Islamic Front, an umbrella group for 12 Salafist factions, is thought to have 10,000 to 25,000 men.
And of course there’s the Iraqi affiliate of al-Qaeda, which renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and which has been expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups, mostly in Syria’s northern and eastern provinces. The group’s brutal tactics — which include kidnapping, torturing and beheading anyone who disagrees with its fanatic ideology — spare no one, analysts say. That includes several top FSA commanders and even the rival Nusra Front, which considers itself the less extremist of the two extremist groups.
“Some of Nusra’s leaders were actually trained by the Syrian intelligence service to kill Americans in Iraq,” Ghadbian claims. “Some of them died in Iraq, while some survived and stayed there, and others came back to Syria and were imprisoned. The extremists in Syria are not really one particular organization. They are several groups. They are very effective fighters and their presence seems to be concentrated in the north.”
Ghadbian also accuses Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of allowing his country to be used as a conduit for transferring Iranian weapons into Syria.
“We wish we could do more, but we have limited capabilities,” Iraq’s new ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, protested in a recent Diplomat interview. “We’ve been asked to stop Iranian planes and inspect them, but we have no control over that corridor. We do not want to fuel weapons into that dangerous region of Syria. In this war of attrition, everybody’s losing out.”
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But that hasn’t stopped the region’s major players from funneling weapons — some of which reportedly originated in such far-flung places as Croatia and Sudan — in their bid to shape the outcome in Syria.
Ghadbian said that since the SOC’s formation, it’s received more than $27 million from Qatar, 91 percent of which has been spent on humanitarian aid. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are also providing military support, “but still it’s not sufficient,” he complained. “The FSA has been forced to leave areas because they ran out of ammunition.”
Even worse, only 9 percent to 11 percent of the 7 million Syrians affected by the fighting are receiving help from the international community, according to the envoy.
In the Qatari capital of Doha, the SOC maintains a full-fledged embassy with an ambassador and a staff of 23. It also has offices in Paris and Egypt and has been recognized by most Arab League member states.
But Ghadbian says what would really turn the tide in favor of the rebels would be significant U.S. military and financial support — which is precisely why the SOC sent a representative to Washington (it also set up an office in New York earlier this year).
“I think we’ve been relatively effective,” said Ghadbian. “One of the sources of our strength is the fact that Syrian-American organizations are lobbying Congress. Our office has also been arranging meetings with the staffs of key members of Congress.”
Among the most supportive lawmakers, he says: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
“That’s why we’re here, to explain to Congress that the hard-core extremists don’t recognize the coalition. We are not going to give weapons to groups that don’t recognize us. The presence of these extremists happened precisely because of that vacuum.”
Ghadbian discounted concerns that Assad’s eventual overthrow will result in a bloodbath for Christians, who account for roughly 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million inhabitants.
Those fears were aggravated by the June murder of a Catholic priest named François Murad in the town of Gassanieh. Reports suggest the 49-year-old monk was killed by the Nusra Front. That followed the April kidnapping in Aleppo of two prominent Orthodox bishops whose whereabouts are still unknown.
Ghadbian says all of Syria’s minorities will be protected by his coalition, whose members, according to a fact sheet, include Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Armenians, Assyrians and Circassians.
“Nothing will happen to the Christian community,” Ghadbian vowed. “I totally understand their fears, but they emanate from Iraq and Egypt. There’s no evidence that the FSA has carried out sectarian attacks against any community. We have a growing number of Christian leaders taking part in the coalition.”
The real divide, he said, is between the Sunnis and the Alawites, who like the Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population but have long controlled the country. He said that Assad and his Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — have carried out “sectarian massacres” in cities like Homs and Latakia as part of an ethnic cleansing rampage.
“One of the regime’s propaganda messages is that it has protected Christians,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of Christians believe that, but the fear now is emanating from the fact that if this conflict continues, it’s going to affect everybody.”
It already pretty much does. Syria’s civil war has metastasized into a regional conflagration fueled by Islam’s longstanding fault lines, pitting Sunni heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Assad’s Alawite sect and his Shiite backers, namely Iran.
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Turkey and Jordan are now reeling under the weight of Syrian refugees flooding into both nations, with periodic clashes flaring up along their borders. The war in Syria has also destabilized Lebanon, where the powerful Hezbollah has been losing ground due to its support of Assad (a car bomb in a Hezbollah stronghold of Lebanon on Aug. 15 killed more than 20 people.)
Hezbollah has helped the embattled president claw back territory from the rebels. But Ghadbian said Hezbollah’s victories underscore Assad’s weaknesses. He pointed out that some 3,000 Hezbollah fighters joined the May 19 battle at Qusair, in which 165 of its troops died. That’s more than half the 320 troops killed in Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel.
“This speaks to the vulnerability of Assad’s forces. They are tired and scattered,” he said. “In 2006, when Israel attacked Lebanon, [Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah was the darling of the Arab world. Now his credibility is zero.”
That gets to another source of concern for Ghadbian: the possibility that neighboring Israel will get sucked into the war tearing Syria apart.
“The Israelis have identified certain conditions under which they would intervene. They fear cross-border attacks and the rise of extremism,” he said. “But we believe that the Israelis staying on the sidelines is good. We don’t want the conflict to spread. We don’t want this to become an Israeli-Syrian conflict by any means.”
Tabler, author of the book “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria,” has concerns of his own. He warns that if the White House doesn’t act quickly, Syria may replace Pakistan as a hotbed of al-Qaeda activism — mainly because so many jihadists are converging on Syria, ready to die for the cause.
“The war in Syria will go on whether we do something or not,” he said, “but we obviously want to shape things in a direction that’s more consistent with our interests.”
To that end, Tabler has highlighted four specific actions the United States should take in the coming months: lay down the “red line” concerning chemical weapons; establish safe zones; work with the opposition; and keep the door open for diplomacy with the Assad regime or whoever replaces Assad in the event something happens to him.
And if something does happen to him, Ghadbian vows that Syria will never become an Islamic state.
“We are not like Egypt or Libya,” he insisted. “We have renounced all this extremist ideology, especially if they impose their beliefs on others. We are confident that the majority of Syrians will not subscribe to that vision.”
The would-be ambassador added: “Part of our mission is to isolate and delegitimize the regime, and present ourselves as the alternative. We will continue to the end. There is no going back.”