As the Obama administration seeks to win support for military strikes on Syria, questions are being asked about who the U.S. can count on inside Syria and what the U.S. should do to help them.
Three months ago, the White House said small arms could be sent to moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army. But those weapons haven’t arrived yet, in part because of concerns that weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades might fall into the hands of Al-Qaida sympathizers.
So for now, the U.S. is only providing the Free Syrian Army with non-lethal assistance, such as night vision goggles and military medical supplies.
That material is being sent to Syria by only one U.S.-based group: the pro-regime-change Syrian Support Group, which holds the only government license to funnel aid to the rebels and is located three blocks from the White House in Washington.
So far the Syrian Support Group has sent an estimated $10 million in U.S. government aid to the rebels.
Mazen Asbahi, the president of the Syrian Support Group, argues that Syria is not Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the U.S. needs to strike militarily against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Most Americans need to understand that what you have in Syria is a genuine desire of the people of Syria to be part of the modern world, of a democracy, with basic freedoms,” Asbahi told Here & Now. “This is a genuine revolution.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, President Obama plans to speak to Americans from the Oval Office on Tuesday night to make his case for a military strike against Syria. Today he spoke to reporters at the G-20 summit in Russia.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious. I want people to understand that gassing innocent people, you know, delivering chemical weapons against children is not something we do.
HOBSON: Well, as the president seeks to win support for his plan, questions are being asked about who the United States can count on inside Syria and what the U.S. should do to help them. Three months ago the White House approved small arms to be sent to moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army. But those weapons haven't arrived yet, in part because of concerns that things like rocket-propelled grenades might fall into the wrong hands.
The U.S. government also allows one group in this country, the Syrian Support Group, to funnel aid to the rebels. So far, the Syrian Support Group has sent an estimated $10 million in aid to rebels from the government. And with offices three blocks from the White House, the Syrian Support Group is well-placed to influence decision-makers.
Mazen Asbahi is the president of the Syrian Support Group, and he joins us now from NPR in Washington. Thanks for joining us.
MAZEN ASBAHI: Hi, thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, I know that your group is in support of regime change in Syria, which is something that at this point at least the Obama administration is not. Tell us a little bit more about the Syrian Support Group.
ASBAHI: Sure. We're a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, nonprofit organization, set up by a group of Syrians from the United States and a few in Canada who saw early on that the likely resolution of the uprising, given the Assad's regime's reaction to the peaceful protests, was that things were going to get ugly. And we were set up to find ways that we could legally support moderates and the good guys on the ground.
HOBSON: And you are so far the only group that has been given the ability by the Treasury Department to help fund the Free Syrian Army. Is that right?
ASBAHI: That's correct. For a long time our main function has been to raise money and send money into Syria, to particular, moderate, vetted brigades. However, back in February the U.S. shifted gears and started supporting the Free Syrian Army directly, and we've been working with our friends in the U.S. government for a while now in finding ways to help strengthen them.
HOBSON: How much money have you raised? How much have you sent to them? And is it just money that you're sending?
ASBAHI: Well, over the last year and a half we've raised over 300 or so thousand dollars, not as much as we had hoped. It is difficult to raise funds for this cause because there's a lot of questions and - that need to get answered and explanation and efforts to educate the public as to who is on the ground and who's fighting the Assad regime.
HOBSON: Do you think that money is enough to achieve your goals?
ASBAHI: No, absolutely not, and it's not any sort of money that any particular NGO can raise. This is a multilateral effort, led by the U.S. with our allies the U.K., France, the Gulf countries Turkey and Jordan, to strengthen the moderates who are fighting the Assad regime and who are keeping the extremists at bay to the best of their ability given the circumstances.
HOBSON: Well, that's the big question, though. How do you know that you are supporting the moderates? Because even the moderates have gotten help at times throughout this crisis from al-Nusra, which is the branch of al-Qaida in Syria.
ASBAHI: Yes, that's true that in certain battles the al-Nusra guys will come and will fight alongside the Free Syrian Army brigades, and it's hard to prevent that given the fight that's on the ground, given the type of violence that's being visited upon civilian areas by the Assad regime.
How do we know who the good guys are? The al-Nusra guys and the Free Syrian Army brigades do not sort of interrelate on a day-to-day basis. They're not part of the same command infrastructure. They're very separate. And more recently, as the sort of al-Qaida nature of the al-Nusra leaders in particular have become more and more known, we're seeing a greater division between extremists on the ground and the more moderate brigades.
For example, not too long ago, an extremist group, the Islamic State for Iraq and Sham had assassinated a senior commander for the Free Syrian Army. We've also seen, in areas in (foreign language spoken) for example, in western Syria, protests by civilians over extremist assertions of control over daily life.
HOBSON: But you can understand that a lot of Americans would be concerned about the idea that perhaps they're not on the same page, al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, but there is some interaction, and it is possible that some of whatever you're sending to them could get into the hands of people who are not friendly to the United States at all.
ASBAHI: It's highly unlikely that anything that the U.S. government sends into Syria that is of any significance would end up in the hands of Nusra or any extremist group, the reason being is that the Free Syrian Army brigades would fear losing control over especially higher-end weapons because they know that those weapons might just as easily turn on them. So there's a self-preservation motive within the Free Syrian Army to keep close guard over whatever support they're able to get.
HOBSON: We're talking with Mazen Asbahi, the president of the Syrian Support Group, which is the only U.S. aid group supplying assistance to Syrian rebels. We will have more with him after a break.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
And later this hour, job growth fell short of expectations in August. Employers added just 169,000 jobs. We'll talk to an economist about what that means for the overall economy. And coming up later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the massive California Rim Fire. Crews are putting the final fire lines around that wildfire that's burning near and inside Yosemite National Park. Stay with us, HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. We're talking with Mazen Asbahi, the president of the Syrian Support Group, which is the only U.S. group that is licensed to provide non-lethal aid to moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army. And Mazen, you were just telling us that it's highly unlikely that extremist rebels will get a hold of any U.S. weapons if and when those weapons arrive in Syria.
Are you lobbying the Obama administration to strike Syria?
ASBAHI: Our organization helps provide information and analysis of what's happening on the ground, what are some of the perspectives of the Free Syrian Army commanders. And yeah, we're encouraging Congress to vote in favor of the authorization that the president put forward.
HOBSON: Mazen Asbahi, I want to ask a question that perhaps some of our listeners are thinking, which is why should we believe what you're saying. There were a lot of people, a lot of factions, in and outside of Iraq before the Iraq war who were advocating that the U.S. go in. And in the end it turned out that much of what they were saying was not true.
ASBAHI: Yeah, no, believe me I was one of those who fought against American involvement in the Iraq war, who was very hesitant about U.S. involvement in the Arab world in general. But as a Syrian-American, as someone who's had the opportunity to travel into Syria and into southern Turkey and have had the opportunity to meet with commanders of the Free Syrian Army, and knowing what I know of the general sentiment within Syria about the regime and about the desire to establish a free and democratic Syria, this is a very different situation.
This is an organic movement for a democratic Syria that was part of the Arab Spring in March of 2011, that was militarized because of the reaction of the Assad regime. No one in Syria is asking America for a ground invasion or boots on the ground.
We're asking for a limited strike to deter Assad from ever utilizing chemical weapons any further and to continue with what is already U.S. policy of supporting the Free Syrian Army and the opposition to force a negotiated settlement and transition of power.
HOBSON: But if it's an organic movement, why shouldn't it be carried out organically at this point?
ASBAHI: It is being carried out organically by this point. The only reason the Assad regime is even standing up currently is because of the unfettered support it's getting from Iran and the massive number of troops and fighters that they're getting from Hezbollah, as well as Russian support.
HOBSON: We heard from Fawaz Gerges on the program, who said the idea of the U.S. striking has more to do with the credibility of the Obama presidency and this red line than it does to ending the conflict in Syria. What would you say to that?
ASBAHI: I think that maintaining the credibility of President Obama and the presidency of the United States, irrespective of who the president is, as well as the role of the United States in the world as the single sole superpower is incredibly important for world peace and regional stability.
And, you know, any sort of significant retreat from the world by the U.S. portends big problems for our, you know, regional and geopolitical interests in the region.
HOBSON: But do you think that it would end the conflict if the U.S. were to get involved?
ASBAHI: I don't think that these strikes alone will end the conflict. I think these strikes will help hasten a quicker end to the conflict than we would otherwise have had without them.
HOBSON: One more thing. For those Americans who are not convinced that this - and the polls show that many Americans are not convinced that it's the right thing to do for the U.S. to get involved, what would you say to them? What are they not understanding that you think is a problem here?
ASBAHI: What I think is a problem is that most Americans need to understand that what you have in Syria is a genuine desire to - of the people of Syria to be part of the modern world, to live in a democracy with basic freedoms. They've been living under the - a tyrant for over 40 years and that wall of fear that have kept them down for so long shattered back in March of 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.
In response to unspeakable brutality by the regime, soldiers, who refused to shoot and kill their own people, defected in large numbers and teamed up with civilian guys from the neighborhood who formed into brigades and are now trying to defend civilian areas and rid this country of a regime. This is a genuine revolution.
HOBSON: And you're confident that whatever comes next, if indeed there is a negotiated settlement and Assad steps down or just some other way that Assad has to leave power, that you're confident that those who would take power would be friendly to the United States?
ASBAHI: I think that's a question for the United States. I think when the administration makes the decision to provide meaningful support to the Free Syrian Army, as well as carry out these strikes in order to deter and degrade Assad's ability to use chemical weapons, I think the Syrian people will feel a debt of gratitude to the United States in the long term. But we've been absent for two years, and so there's a lot of skepticism on the ground as to U.S. support. But I hope that we will prove them wrong.
HOBSON: Mazen Asbahi is the president of the Syrian Support Group. That's a group in Washington. He joined us from NPR headquarters in Washington. Mazen, thank you so much for joining us.
ASBAHI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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