The U.S. has lost face on the world stage by ignoring Syrian President Bashar Assad’s war crimes, according to a top Syrian-American activist, who warns 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 non-government organization fighting for democratic change in Syria, said in an interview that the Biden administration has fumbled by failing after more than 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, while Moscow’s success in propping up the Damascus regime emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin and led directly to the decision to invade 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, adding that “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 the 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 recently gained traction by engaging U.S. lawmakers directly and holding informational events, including one in 2022 at The Heritage Foundation that highlighted the ongoing blowback from Syria’s war in the region and in the world for U.S. foreign policy.
An essential aspect of the C4SSA’s work has also been to help compile evidence on war crimes by the Assad government, in hopes it will help governments in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East bring those responsible for the atrocities to justice.
But there’s also a bigger mission: Sound the alarm about what’s still going on in Syria, and the dangers of American disengagement from the crisis. An increasingly confident Mr. Assad has begun to emerge from a long period of diplomatic isolation, including 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,” said Dr. Ghbeis.
“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.”
The Syrian civil war, sparked in 2011 when Mr. Assad moved to crush pro-democracy protests sparked by the Arab Spring uprising, has 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.
When the violence erupted in 2011, he made multiple secret trips back home to work in a medical capacity with pro-democratic opposition forces, riding shotgun in an ambulance through the war zone, trying 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 had grown up in Ghouta, where his mother, sister and brother were still living among Syrian opposition forces 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 the attack occurred, Dr. Ghbeis was back in the U.S., scrambling to gather details via video calls with survivors on the ground.
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 then-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.”
It was a repeating real-life nightmare that 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 across the border to Turkey, where she miraculously recovered and now — in her 70s — has rebuilt her life with his father.
When Ghouta fell to Assad regime forces in 2018, Dr. Ghbeis says he learned 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 U.N. 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,” said Dr. Ghbeis.
The results have been mixed.
Dr. Ghbeis praised the work of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ethan A. Goldrich, the State Department’s current policy chief for Syria, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf.
C4SSA, he said, respects and works well with both political parties in Washington and acknowledges the vast complexities of the Syrian war, a multi-sided 12-year conflict that has also 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, telling reporters on January 4: “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 life-saving humanitarian aid.”
But Dr. Ghbeis criticized the Biden administration’s failure to generate a more robust strategy to confront Mr. Assad, asserting that 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 or 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 openly lamented that the administration has not picked up and run with the momentum of the former Trump administration, which had appointed Ambassador James F. Jeffrey in 2018 to serve as a special high-level envoy overseeing Syria policy. Although Mr. Trump tried at one point to remove them, some 900 U.S. troops remain stationed inside Syria, primarily working with anti-regime Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast battling the remnants of Islamic State.
A special envoy could bring diplomatic heft to rally regional Arab allies around a cohesive, U.S.-aligned policy, said Dr. Ghbeis, who asserted that the absence of a special envoy is resulting in lost U.S. influence.
He pointed to a little-reported meeting last month between 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,” said Dr. Ghbeis.
“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’ 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 going forward, he said, adding that “we have a new generation in the Middle East and we are failing them big-time right now.”