- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The U.S. has lost face on the world stage by ignoring Syrian President Bashar Assad’s war crimes, a top Syrian American activist says, and Washington is dangerously in denial of the fallout from Mr. Assad’s emergence as the victor of the country’s more than decade-long civil war.

Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis, a Harvard Medical School doctor heading a nongovernmental organization fighting for democratic change in Syria, said in an interview that the Biden administration has fumbled by failing after two years in office to appoint a special envoy for Syria policy.

Dr. Ghbeis said the administration and the U.S. foreign policy establishment are allowing Russia and Iran to “normalize” Mr. Assad. He added that Moscow’s success in propping up the regime in Damascus emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin and led directly to the invasion of Ukraine.

“Actions speak much louder than words, but despite the stated policy that Assad is a criminal and that Assad has to be brought to justice, we see no action,” Dr. Ghbeis told The Washington Times.

“The international community looks to Washington, and there should be action to hold Assad accountable and bring him to justice,” he said. “The current U.S. policy seems to be to give more leverage in the Middle East to Russia and to Iran, whose policies are to use Syria for their own agenda.

“The U.S. is turning a blind eye,” Dr. Ghbeis said in a sobering critique that has come to undergird his mission as president of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America (C4SSA), an influential group of about 150 highly educated Syrian Americans.

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The group has flown largely under the radar since its founding in 2018 but has gained traction by engaging U.S. lawmakers directly and holding informational events. An event last year at The Heritage Foundation highlighted the ongoing blowback from Syria’s war in the region and around the world for U.S. foreign policy.

An essential aspect of the C4SSA’s work has also been to help compile evidence of war crimes by the Assad government in hopes that it will help governments in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East bring those responsible for the atrocities to justice.

A bigger mission is to sound the alarm about continuing problems in Syria and the dangers of American disengagement from the crisis. An increasingly confident Mr. Assad is emerging from a long period of diplomatic isolation. He took a surprise trip last year to the United Arab Emirates, a close U.S. ally in the region.

“The risk and the threat is that Syria is going to be another Afghanistan, where we leave the area and our adversaries — Assad, Iran, Russia, maybe Islamic State — somehow remain in control,” Dr. Ghbeis said.

“There’s been a lack of a serious successful strategy to fix Syria, and we’re trying to step up to fill the vacuum by being a hybrid organization that works as a bridge between the policymakers and Syrian people,” he said. “We have a pulse on what’s happening on the ground from talking to family members, friends and networks of individuals inside Syria.”

Real-life nightmare

The Syrian civil war started in 2011 when Mr. Assad moved to crush pro-democracy demonstrations sparked by the Arab Spring uprising. The war displaced 13 million people, more than 5 million of whom fled to nearby countries including Turkey. As of March 2022, rebel groups, largely confined to Idlib province in the country’s north after a decade of fighting, put the death toll at nearly 600,000.

Most of C4SSA’s members have wrenching personal ties to the war. Some have even served prison time in Syria and been tortured by the Assad regime.

Dr. Ghbeis, 43, became a U.S. citizen in 2016 after coming to America on a professional visa as a doctor before the fighting began.

After the violence erupted in 2011, he made multiple secret trips back home to work in a medical capacity with pro-democratic opposition forces. He rode shotgun in an ambulance through the war zone to help civilians devastated by the violence.

He soon found himself documenting war crimes as the Assad regime began carrying out chemical weapons attacks, including the horrific assault in August 2013 on the densely populated suburb of Ghouta near Damascus.

Dr. Ghbeis grew up in Ghouta, and his mother, sister and brother were still living among Syrian opposition forces there in 2013. “Three months before the chemical attack happened,” he said, “people in Ghouta were learning from infiltrators on the regime side that there was a plan for a chemical attack. We started to establish a first-response system.”

When Ghouta was attacked, Dr. Ghbeis was back in the U.S. scrambling to gather details via video calls with survivors.

Estimates of the death toll go as high as 1,700. It was considered the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and sparked intense debate in Washington over the Obama administration’s appetite for confronting the Assad regime.

Disinformation and confusion over what happened in Ghouta made the experience all the more draining for Dr. Ghbeis.

He was communicating with contacts in Ghouta via social media in 2015 when he learned that his mother, sister and niece had been abducted and were being held hostage by the Assad regime.

A regime intelligence officer suddenly began harassing Dr. Ghbeis in a harrowing series of video calls on Facebook Messenger.

“This intelligence officer would make a video call to me and say, ‘Your mom is next to me in prison and she needs to get out of here. … You could help her by bringing us your contacts in the opposition,’” Dr. Ghbeis said. “The officer would then turn the video and I would see my mom. She was in bad shape, scared and unable to say anything.”

The real-life nightmare continued for more than two years. In 2017, Dr. Ghbeis learned that his mother had suddenly been released. “She had developed a severe case of tuberculosis, so they let her out to go to die,” he said.

Dr. Ghbeis and his brother, still living among the opposition, managed to smuggle her to Turkey, where she miraculously recovered. Now in her 70s, she has rebuilt her life with his father.

When Ghouta fell to Assad regime forces in 2018, Dr. Ghbeis said, he learned that his sister and niece had also been released.

Special envoy needed

The personal experiences of C4SSA members have driven the group’s relentless push to draw the attention of United Nations agencies and Western governments to the Assad regime’s atrocities.

“We have submitted reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council, and in the U.S., we have been engaging with the think tanks,” Dr. Ghbeis said.

The results have been mixed.

Dr. Ghbeis praised the work of Ethan A. Goldrich, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and the State Department’s policy chief for Syria, and Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

C4SSA, he said, respects and works well with both political parties in Washington and acknowledges the vast complexities of the Syrian war, a multisided 12-year-old conflict that has become an overlapping proxy fight among the world’s leading powers.

State Department spokesman Ned Price, asked about Mr. Assad’s recent diplomatic outreach in the region, reaffirmed the staunch U.S. opposition to recognizing the “brutal dictator” in Damascus. On Jan. 4, he told reporters: “We urge states to carefully consider the Assad regime’s atrocious human rights record of the past 12 years as it continues to inflict atrocities on the Syrian people and to deny access to lifesaving humanitarian aid.”

Dr. Ghbeis criticized the Biden administration’s failure to generate a more robust strategy to confront Mr. Assad. He said Washington has ignored much of the Syrian opposition while partnering only with a small number of questionable armed groups to block a resurgence of the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS.

“The National Security Council team of the administration has not paid enough attention or invested in fixing the Syria problem,” he said. “Their main focus is how to justify the spending of money in Syria by pointing to the ongoing ISIS threat, but at the same time they’re not figuring out how to fix that problem.”

He lamented that the Biden administration has not maintained the momentum of the Trump administration, which appointed Ambassador James F. Jeffrey in 2018 to serve as a special envoy overseeing Syria policy.

Although Mr. Trump tried at one point to remove U.S. troops, some 900 remain stationed inside Syria. They work primarily with anti-regime Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast battling the remnants of the Islamic State group.

A special envoy could bring diplomatic heft to rally regional Arab allies around a cohesive, U.S.-aligned policy, said Dr. Ghbeis. He added that the absence of a special envoy is resulting in lost U.S. influence.

He pointed to a little-reported meeting last month of the Turkish, Russian and Syrian intelligence chiefs in Moscow. “The U.S. policy absence is emboldening such meetings, where one of the agenda items was to eliminate the U.S. presence in Syria,” Dr. Ghbeis said.

“A special envoy would be able to troubleshoot all the gaps in policy by continuing to address the ISIS threat, the humanitarian crisis and the ongoing normalization of Assad, a war criminal,” he said. “Instead, our allies are confused about what exactly the U.S. policy is. Defeat ISIS? Well, OK, that has been achieved to some extent. But U.S. policy ought to go beyond ISIS’s defeat.

“I work at Harvard. I know Americans are smart. They have very great minds in policy, in all the fields,” Dr. Ghbeis said. “How can we not find out who are the right partners in Syria?”

The stakes will only get higher, he said. “We have a new generation in the Middle East,” he said, “and we are failing them big time right now.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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