Dr. Mahmoud Khattab is the Chairman of the Syrian American Alliance. The organization is one of five that make up the Coalition for a Democratic Syria. A Sacramento-based doctor of internal medicine and originally from Damascus, Dr. Khattab’s mission is to help Syrian refugees who have fled their chaos-stricken country. Involved with the Coalition for a Democratic Syria in lobbying Washington D.C., the Alliance’s main focus is the immediate well-being of Syrian refugees. To this extent, the organization is involved in developmental projects in various refugee camps. The opinions expressed here are those of Dr. Khattab and do not represent those of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria.
Dr. Khattab sat down with Alexander Corbeil of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss the work of the Syrian American Alliance, the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, recent calls for a no-fly zone, and arming the opposition, the sectarian component of the uprising, and the failure of the United Nations to resolve the crisis.
“We have talked to the administration before about this issue, I think imposing a no-fly zone, training and providing arms to well-vetted soldiers in Syria and, of course, talking to the leaders of the Free Syrian Army will help them to organize and to get rid of the Assad regime very quickly.”
Q: Dr. Khattab, could you provide the Foreign Policy Association’s readership with the background on how you got involved with the Syrian American Alliance?
A: I was active in the United States a few days after the revolution started on March 15, 2011. We started by working with activists on the ground here in Sacramento, California and organized rallies and scheduled meetings with congressmen and senators to talk about the revolution in Syria and the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. Then we expanded to northern California, San Francisco and the Bay area. We had one group at the time. After that, I was involved with the Syrian American Council, also a national organization. I was chairman of the Council for nine months. Next we tried to organize our efforts as Syrian-American groups in the United States. We looked at the most active groups in the U.S., groups that have offices in Washington D.C. that do political work and have meetings with administration representatives.
We found four groups; they are the Syrian Expatriates Organization, United for a Free Syria, Syrian Emergency Taskforce, and the Syrian American Council. We came up with an umbrella organization for political work, the Coalition for a Democratic Syria. We had a board, comprised of eight people and I was elected as the chairman of this board. A few months ago Syrian-American activists wanted to concentrate more on developmental and education initiatives in the refugee camps. This was the main idea behind the Syrian American Alliance. We founded this group, continued to be part of the Coalition and I continued to be its chairman. At the same time the main focus of the Alliance is developmental and educational initiatives, this is why I am planning my trip to Turkey and Idlib [in the coming weeks]. This is in a nutshell what the Alliance is about.
Within the alliance there are very effective and influential people. For example, Eiad Charbaji is a very famous journalist from Syria; he left Syria a few months ago. Also a very famous journalist, Taufik Hallak, who worked with Syrian state-run television for over thirty-five years and is in Los Angeles now. He also left Syria a few months ago. We are planning to undertake educational initiatives with these two individuals in addition to other projects in the upcoming months. Also, we have Hayvi Bouzo, who is the head of Government Relations in D.C. Ms. Bouzo used to be a broadcaster on Orient TV.
Q: The Syrian American Alliance is one of five organizations which have come together under the umbrella of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria. What is your organization’s mission and how does it fit within the Coalition?
A: Since we are part of the Coalition, we have to abide by its mission and mission. The Coalition’s main vision is to have a free and democratic Syria, to support the revolution on the ground by all possible means. To establish a civilized and new system in Syria that grants equal rights to all Syrians. The Coalition’s main work is in Washington D.C., in the political arena, which involves meeting with the Congress, Senate, the State Department and the White House. Also, we undertake public awareness campaigns on the situation in Syria and make recommendations to the administration on the best possible solutions to the crisis. When it comes to the Alliance, although we play a significant role with the Coalition in the political arena, I would say seventy-five percent of the Alliance’s work is developmental; we have various projects. One of our big projects is called ‘Walk for Syrian Children’ which will take place on November 17th, in twenty-five cities in twenty-five countries. W are also partnering with UNICEF. You can visit http://walk4childrenofsyria.org/ and find information on this project.
The reason I mention this project is because it fits in well with the vision of the Syrian American Alliance. It helps the Syrian people by increasing public awareness about their suffering and with financing projects within Syria. One of the other projects we are working on is called Electronic School. As you know, thousands of Syrian children have been left without schools, so we are trying to come up with electronic schools to help them. Another project is to develop psychiatric facilities within the camps, to treat children with Post-Traumatic Disorder. We are also producing short videos under the direction of Mr. Taufik Hallak with the goal of informing people about the positive aspects of the revolution, to remind people that this revolution was peaceful, and is still in the most part peaceful. We want to keep it this way. Also, we want to teach people in Syria about human rights, about developing a free and democratic Syria. Mr. Hallak has great experience with such videos and programs, as this was his previous work in Syria. Mr. Eiad Charbaji is working on launching a newspaper that we will distribute to our members; it will be a monthly newspaper and will have a lot of information about what is happening on the ground in Syria and about the needs of the people. It is very important, as it will connect the Syrian-American community with the activists on the ground. To go back to your original question, we are still part of the Coalition and we still play a part in the whole vision of the Coalition.
Q: The Coalition for a Democratic Syria has called for the United States to impose a no-fly zone and arm or allow others to arm the opposition. Given the apprehension among Western countries to arm the Syrian rebel groups and the deep divisions among the various brigades which compose the Free Syrian Army, how do you envision a hypothetical structure for arming the rebels?
A: When you have a revolution, you do not have a perfect situation. There is not one perfect revolution anywhere in the world; this is just the way it is. I think the Syrian opposition and the people fighting on the ground have been blamed a lot for this issue. I think what plays against the opposition is that we don’t have a strategic area like Benghazi, for example. We did not get a no-fly zone, a protected area where we could organize the soldiers and the opposition inside Syria. For the most part, the opposition is operates outside of Syria. We have talked to the administration before about this issue. I think imposing a no-fly zone, training and providing arms to well-vetted soldiers in Syria and, of course, talking to the leaders of the Free Syrian Army will help them organize and get rid of the Assad regime very quickly. I am not a military expert, so I cannot give details of how to organize fighters. Having said that, this is what we believe in the Coalition: providing a no-fly zone, training and equipping the opposition. We know that the administration has been to Turkey and made contacts with members of the opposition, but they have been slow in supporting them and taking action in terms of practical solutions on the ground.
Q: On the 11th of October you released a statement on behalf of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, expressing support for Alawite opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. With almost two years of conflict in Syria, haven’t we passed the threshold for sectarian reconciliation?
A: No, we have not. In fact, the Alawites are part of the Syrian society and will continue to be so. They are Syrian citizens, honest and nice people. We have lived with them for many years. Unfortunately, the Assad regime abused the Alawites and put them on the front line. We have talked to them and found out that many of them are against what is happening. The same thing applies to all other minorities and ethnic groups. The Kurds, for example, are highly supportive of the revolution. The Druze support the revolution. Remember, we are talking about minorities, they are not the vast majority like the Sunnis in Syria, you won’t see mass protests. But, we have talked to them and they support the revolution. The same thing with the Christians; they have some concerns and fears and this is true of the situation in Syria. Having said that, they do support the revolution and a free and democratic Syria. I think it is about time to end the Assad regime and the conflict very quickly. This will help establish a free and democratic Syria and prevent a large scale civil war in the future. I think the Syrian people are capable of living together and establishing a system that grants equal rights to every citizen of Syria.
Q: Lastly, the Syrian American Alliance, as mentioned previously, has called for a no-fly zone in Syria. How does the Alliance and the Coalition for that matter plan to convince American policy makers and the general public to support creating a no-fly zone?
A: in my opinion, at this specific time it is more important to arm the Free Syrian Army. We wanted to impose a no-fly zone about six or seven months ago. We still call for it, but we believe if the administration and other countries provide enough weapons to the Free Syria Army, weapons that can protect them from Assad’s fighter jets and airstrikes, the Free Syrian Army is capable of defeating the regime. I’m sure you have heard about the recent developments in Idlib [Governorate], the great achievements of the FSA in the last couple of days. They are becoming more organized and more professional in dealing with the crisis. But, without arms, without effective arms to defend themselves against airstrikes, which is the main means for Assad to attack the liberated areas, this situation will continue for a long time.
To go back to your question as to how to convince the administration to either create a no-fly zone or arm the Free Syrian Army, I think first you need to have political will from the administration to end the crisis in Syria. I think once this will is there then the task becomes easier. I think the administration is very well aware of the massacres happening in Syria, the assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in Lebanon by the Assad regime as well as the recent attacks on the Turkish and Jordanian borders. We have told the administration many times that the crisis will not be contained inside Syria. Assad’s strategy for many years has been to expand any problem within Syria beyond its borders and that is what’s happening now.
It is in the best interest of the United States and the national security of the country, not to mention the Middle East, to end this brutal regime and establish a stable system in Syria. This will have a very positive impact on Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and the whole Middle East. I think strategically speaking it is very important for the United States to end the Assad regime and if the administration does not do something we will continue to see the spillover effect, not to mention a large scale civil war in Syria.
Also, two more important issues: First the administration spoke to us about extremists in Syria. We don’t have figures or numbers, but we know for sure if this situation continues, it will create an atmosphere for extremists to operate freely in Syria. Also, there is a strong link between Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. This is something to be considered; ending the Assad regime will weaken both Iran and Hezbollah in the area and will establish a very stable situation in Syria. This will allow Syria to have a mutually beneficial relationship with other countries.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?
A: They tried the Kofi Annan plan before; they are now trying to establish a plan by [Joint U.N.-Arab League Envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi. I think that these U.N. missions are a waste of time. After two years of crisis we have to be smart enough to realize that Bashar al-Assad is not going to listen. He is just abusing the time and the system to continue his crimes and massacres in Syria. We have to be realistic and understand the situation. Moreover, in the Security Council, Russia, and China have used their veto powers four times and are willing to do so again. We have to see that the Security Council is not going to work and the Brahimi plan will probably fail. We have the Friends of Syria, which has nearly 100 member countries. I think this is the best way for the administration to go outside of the Security Council.