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Syrian Rebels Lobby Washington Behind The Scenes

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WASHINGTON -- A large map of Syria dotted with pink and yellow sticky notes dominates one wall of the Syrian Support Group's Washington headquarters, housed in two small offices in a newly built high-rise in the heart of the capital's K Street corridor, just blocks from the White House.

Next to the map hang portrait-sized photographs of the Syrian civil war, a brutal conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives since 2011. In addition to the rebel soldiers being killed in the fighting, "people's family members are being taken away, detained and sent to prison on a daily basis for minor 'crimes,' like waving the flag of Free Syria out of a window or shouting, 'Freedom,'" said Dan Layman, the SSG's media relations director. "Most everyone who goes to prison for these things turns up dead a few weeks later, their bodies returned to their families with clear signs of torture."

The SSG is working to help the rebels oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The notes on the map represent the locations of rebel commanders, with whom the nonprofit group maintains close contact.

Officially formed in the spring of 2012 by a group of Syrian expatriates living in the U.S. and Canada, the SSG has acted as a conduit for information between Syria's Supreme Military Council, which commands the rebel armies, and outside governments ever since the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Syria in February of 2012. It has also been raising money from private donors to support the Syrian rebels and lobbying Congress and the Obama administration to send military assistance to the fighters.

Calls for increased U.S. involvement have grown louder in recent days, following the White House's revelation that it believes Assad has used chemical weapons.

Since February of this year, the U.S. has been publicly committed to sending nonlethal aid to the rebel forces, in the form of food and medical supplies. While President Barack Obama had also declared that the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" that would trigger what many believed would be a military response from the U.S., the White House has stressed that the current intelligence assessment isn't concrete.

"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don't have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," Obama said during a press conference at the White House this past Tuesday. "And when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts."

The U.S. State Department, American intelligence services, foreign governments, the United Nations and a host of independent groups are all currently working to confirm the allegations that chemical weapons were used. But behind the scenes in Washington, a robust lobbying operation is also underway.

The SSG is far from the only organization trying to influence U.S. decision-making on Syria. Another Washington-based umbrella group, the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, is collecting donations for humanitarian relief and helping to mobilize Syrian Americans to lobby their members of Congress on issues related to the conflict. Representatives of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the political arm of the Syrian rebels, are trying to establish what their legal adviser called "a quasi-embassy" in Washington and to gain recognition of the Syrian rebel government at the United Nations. They recently hired Carne Ross, a top Occupy Wall Street activist, as their U.S.-based lobbyist.

The Assad regime, for its part, has been waging a public relations offensive to convince the U.S. that America is on the wrong side of the civil war. It recently invited reporters from The New York Times to interview a group of rebel prisoners who the regime said were "vicious" international terrorists supported by extremist groups in the Middle East. In December, Assad's government had arranged a similar visit with "extremist rebel prisoners" for reporters from Britain's Sky News, who later described their conversations as "surreal."

syrian rebel lobby
U.S. cargo plane delivering nonlethal supplies for Syrian rebels is unloaded outside Syria in April.

Those who support U.S. military intervention in Syria face steep opposition among U.S. voters, according to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, which pegged public support for sending weapons to the Syrian rebels at a mere 12 percent, with 51 percent opposed, and 37 percent unsure.

Of the various groups in Washington advocating increased support for the rebels, only the Syrian Opposition Coalition's representatives have formally registered with the Justice Department as agents of a foreign government. The Coalition for a Democratic Syria is composed of Syrian-American expatriate groups whose members engage with Congress on a grassroots level to advocate for more U.S. engagement -- a subtle difference from out-and-out lobbying on legislation -- while the SSG bills itself as primarily an information provider and a fundraising group.

Led by Executive Director Brian Sayers, who spent the last seven years as a political adviser to NATO, and board Chairman Mazen Asbahi, a well-connected Chicago attorney and Syrian expatriate, the SSG also maintains a small office in northern Turkey and another in England, where staffers help to verify information from the front lines and coordinate international responses.

"We analyze our intelligence from Syria constantly, and once we're confident in it, we send that information to the Hill, the Department of State, and the White House, so there's a constant flow of military information back and forth," said Layman.

After a year that has seen the fighting in Syria escalate dramatically, this "back and forth" has helped Sayers build important relationships at each end of Pennsylvania Avenue and helped the SSG raise its status in Washington's diplomatic circles.

Last June, The Daily Beast reported that top diplomats at the State Department wouldn't even meet with the group. But Sayers and Asbahi recently found themselves aboard a U.S. government cargo plane in the Middle East, as supplies were unloaded and put on trucks headed for Syria. The State Department partnered with the SSG for the first delivery of U.S. aid to the Free Syrian Army: a multimillion-dollar shipment of Meals Ready to Eat and combat medical supplies.

WATCH: SSG TRUCKS ENTER SYRIA

"SSG was a major factor in facilitating the Department of State's relationship with the Military Councils," Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, wrote in a late April letter. The group, he wrote, is "the U.S. government's trusted partner" and "a friend to both the United States and Syria."

The SSG's lobbying strategy reflects its unusual position as a cause without a built-in U.S. constituency. After all, the group can't promise members of Congress more votes from the Syrian rebels or campaign donations from Syrians (U.S. law prohibits foreign nationals from donating to U.S. political campaigns). So instead, the SSG comes to the table with information that helps its natural allies in Congress press their case with the White House.

"We've found that at this point it makes more sense for us to focus on magnifying the voices of our strongest supporters with good information, instead of trying to win over the unconvinced or uninterested members," said Layman.

"Groups like these help lawmakers build their credibility on issues -- like Syrian intervention, for instance -- which they already support," said Tim LaPira, an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University and an expert on lobbying and campaign finance. "Syrian issues are unlikely to get most members another point or two [in electoral margins] back home. Instead, they're seen as good public policy, at least to the members who decide to engage in them," he said.

On Capitol Hill, the SSG and other Syrian opposition advocacy groups say they have found a number of powerful lawmakers willing to push for greater intervention in Syria, including Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Democratic Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.).

"The U.S. should lead efforts to support the moderate Syrian armed and political opposition," Casey wrote in a blog on The Huffington Post on May 1. He said the U.S. should consider "cruise missile strikes on Syrian Air Force planes as they sit on the tarmac," as well as potentially using "Patriot missile batteries to provide cover for Syrians ... who are subjected to SCUD missile attacks."

The Coalition for a Democratic Syria also pressed its case on Capitol Hill recently, organizing a National Advocacy Day for Syria on April 25. Syrian Americans from across the country traveled to Washington to lobby members of Congress to support parallel bills in the House and Senate that call on the U.S. to provide increased aid, training and resources to the Syrian rebels.

"We visited lawmakers who have significant Syrian-American populations in their districts, and who we hoped would listen to the voices of their constituents," said Jason Hunt, a research fellow at the Syrian American Council, one of the participating groups.

"It's not something we'd been planning to do," Hunt said. But with the White House's revelation regarding chemical weapons pushing Syria to the forefront of the news cycle, he said, "we decided to strike while the iron was hot."

During their day of meetings, which Hunt said included visits with lawmakers from California, Texas and Northern Virginia, the citizen activists asked House lawmakers to back the Free Syria Act, a bill that would allow the U.S. to send military supplies to the rebels. The day after Democratic Rep. Jim Moran's Syrian-American constituents visited his office in Washington, the 12-term Virginia congressman signed on as the fourth co-sponsor of the bill.

A Senate bill similar to the Free Syria Act was introduced in March by Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, and is also working its way through committee with five co-sponsors. The Senate legislation, titled the Syria Democratic Transition Act, places more emphasis on humanitarian assistance, as opposed to military aid, than the House bill.

"Casey made it clear when we met with him that the bill doesn't go as far as he might have wanted to in terms of military aid," said Hunt, "but this is what he thought would stand the best chance of passing the Senate."

Both Hunt and the SSG's Layman said their groups have had more success getting their message to the White House -- where foreign policy decisions are ultimately made -- through contacts on Capitol Hill or officials at the State Department. Members of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria have a meeting with State Department officials every other Thursday to discuss the ongoing situation. Though the SSG and the Coalition for a Democratic Syria aren't specifically collaborating on any projects, Hunt described the groups as "two sides of the same coin."

While the SSG and the Coalition for a Democratic Syria work the Washington angles, representatives of the Syrian Opposition Coalition -- a sort of government-in-waiting for the rebels -- work to establish political ties with other foreign governments and the United Nations. Dr. Najib Ghadbian, a professor on leave from the University of Arkansas and a longtime activist for Syrian democracy, is the coalition's special representative to the United States, or its quasi-ambassador. Imad Moustapha, the Assad regime's ambassador to the U.S., was recalled to Syria in 2011.

Bassel Korkor, a Syrian-American attorney advising the opposition coalition, said the group's U.N. ties have become increasingly important in recent weeks. "We see the U.N. as a partner to the Syrian people, and a place where we can speak to the representatives of many different countries and seek aid and long-term resources," he said.

Carne Ross' New York-based firm, Independent Diplomat, advises the Syrian Opposition Coalition on a pro bono basis. "They help us navigate the U.N., brief us on upcoming meetings and provide consulting on diplomatic issues," said Korkor.

In Washington, he said, "Syrian Opposition representatives liaise with the State Department on a regular basis here, and with the ambassadors of other countries." The advocacy work on Capitol Hill falls largely to the Syrian-American groups working under the banner of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria. Korkor also serves on that group's board.

As the Obama administration assesses the evidence of chemical weapons used in Syria and considers options that include arming the rebels, Korkor stressed that the goal of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in the U.S. is not to convince the international community to intervene -- although, he said, "we believe U.S. intervention would save lives." More bloodshed is not their aim. The real goal, he said, "is to start building democracy now" in Syria and "to keep building a governance system where human rights and the rule of law are respected.

"We're not over there ringing the war bells," Korkor said. "There's so much more we need to do right now."

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