Rebel Diplomats With Day Jobs: The U.S. Branch Of The Syrian Opposition

Bassel Korkor, an associate at the law firm of Jones Day, divides his time between Washington, D.C., and Cleveland. In his spare time, the 32-year-old husband and father is moonlighting as a revolutionary.

The child of Syrian Christians who came to the United States in the 1970s, Korkor has spent most of his life in America. However, he’s managed to take on a very active role in the fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad that has gripped Syria since 2011. Korkor is currently serving as a pro bono legal adviser to the American office of a group that is positioning itself as the political arm of the rebellion in that country.

“I can say this for me, this is my first revolution,” Korkor told me when we first spoke by telephone in June.While the Syrian revolution is being fought on the ground, opposition groups have also established foreign political operations, including here in the United States, where they are attempting to work with officials at the highest levels of government to further their cause. Like Korkor, most of the rebel diplomats who make up the American arm of the Syrian opposition are regular citizens who are juggling the unique challenges of conflict zone politics with their day jobs.

“These guys are paying an enormous personal price for their role in this revolution,” said Steven Heydemann, special adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. “They’re borrowing against their homes, they’re taking on credit card debt, they’re putting their jobs at risk, they’re putting marriages at risk, and they are enormously committed. And some of them have paid a very high personal price.”

Korkor’s group, the U.S. Office of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, was officially registered as an American representative of a foreign government with the U.S. Department of Justice in April. This was the first official American outpost of the anti-Assad Coalition, which has been rallying foreign support and setting up the framework for an interim government that could lead Syria in the event the Assad regime falls.

The American office of the Coalition is led by Najib Ghadbian (pictured below), a Syrian-American author and associate professor of political science and Middle East studies at the University of Arkansas who serves as the group’s representative to both the United States and the United Nations. Ghadbian’s chief of staff is a Syrian-American man named Oubab Khalil, who, until recently, ran a real estate agency in Texas.

Ghadbian, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, is currently on leave from the University of Arkansas to focus on his work with the Coalition, Korkor told me. Khalil recently began working for the Coalition full-time, Korkor said.

Korkor said the Coalition has recently set up offices in Washington and New York and has “a handful” of staffers, many of whom are volunteers. He also said the Coalition “partners” with various Syrian-American groups.

“It’s a lot of travel, lots of conference calls, a lot of personal investment,” Korkor explained. “Everybody here wants to — the passion here is not revolution in and of itself, the passion is what can we do to help the country rebuild and help transition it to a democratic society that protects all Syrians.”

According to Korkor most of those involved with the Coalition’s U.S. Office are, like him Ghadbian, and Khalil, moonlighting in revolutionary politics.

“I’ve been doing, you know, these conference calls and meetings with other activists who are volunteering from across the country for the past two years,” said Korkor. “Most of them — I’m the only lawyer — or maybe there’s one or two other lawyers … it’s all just doctors, engineers.”

The Coalition was formed in November 2012 and based on the Syrian National Council, a conglomeration of individuals and organizations opposed to Assad that, according to Korkor, “kind of fell apart.” The SNC is now part of the Coalition, which is structured to serve as an interim government in the event the Assad regime is toppled.

Like its U.S. office, the Coalition itself includes many expats who are new to government. The Coalition’s prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Syria, was educated in Indiana, and spent over a decade living in Texas and working as an executive at a telecommunications firm. He left his job last year to move to Turkey and take his position in the Coalition.

The Institute of Peace’s Heydemann, who has worked closely with the American representatives of the Syrian Coalition, said its American operation has a “crowded agenda,” but he described it as mainly focused on “maximizing U.S. support for humanitarian relief efforts, encouraging the U.S. to accelerate implementation of the decision to provide weapons to the armed opposition” and “supporting the work of the coalition in its effort to consolidate its position as an interim government as a body that will eventually be given the same degree of recognition that is now given to the Assad regime.” Heydemann has been spearheading a project called “The Day After” dedicated to guiding Syrian opposition groups in an effort to promote a democratic transition away from Assad.

Korkor said the Coalition’s U.S. office is working with officials at all levels of the American government to achieve these goals.

“The main goal is really the goals of the revolution … for them to do whatever they can to promote, peace, freedom, and democracy in Syria,” said Korkor. “In the U.S. it entails interacting with the government, interfacing, with the State Department, or members of Congress, or the White House on issues related to rebuilding, and transition, and, yes, also the political activity to promote the opposition in Syria and support the opposition there.”

Asked about the coalition, a State Department spokesperson pointed to a statement issued in June that said, “The State Department maintains an active dialogue to coordinate policy and assistance for Syria with a broad cross-section of Syrian opposition groups, including with the Syrian Coalition offices in Egypt, Turkey, and Washington.”

In New York, the Coalition is trying to counter the work of the official Mission of Syria at the United Nations, which still represents the Assad regime. It did not respond to requests for comment from TPM.

“At the UN, the Syrian government still holds the seat, but they’re pariahs at the UN. They vote with the Irans, the North Koreas, the Cubas, the Venezuelas of the world … whereas we of the Syrian coalition, we’re present at meetings of the Arab group, the European group, the friends of Syria core group in the UN,” Korkor said. “Our goal is to increase international aid for transition and international humanitarian aid, whereas the Syrian government, like, again although it’s still functioning and has the seats at the UN and the embassy in Washington, is not doing that kind of work to try and promote transition or go and get humanitarian aid.”

Recently, the Coalition brought in some reinforcements to support its efforts. In April, the Coalition filed paperwork with the DOJ indicating it was working with Independent Diplomat, Inc., a Manhattan-based firm dedicated to “confidential advice and practical assistance in diplomatic strategy and technique to governments, political groups, international organisations and NGOs.”

Independent Diplomat helps the Coalition with “diplomatic consulting services,” Korkor said “They help us with research related to the UN and international law issues and help set up and prepare us for meetings at UN missions and UN offices,” he explained. “Because of their experience working with other organizations in the past, [they] are a good resource for background and ideas. And so, we work with them in that capacity.” Mathias Vaa, who leads Independent Diplomat’s work on Middle Eastern affairs declined to discuss the company’s work with the Coalition, citing its policy to “not engage with the press.”

Though the coalition has passionate staffers and volunteers, allies, and the attention of international governments, there are questions about its effectiveness.

“The Syrians are very fragmented,” Joshua Landis, an associate professor and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told TPM. “This is the problem with the opposition. There are lots of different competing groups who have sharp elbows. I don’t doubt that many of them have good intentions, but they’re not united.”

According to Landis, who is also the president of the Syrian Studies Association, the U.S. government initially recognized the Coalition as the official representative of the Syrian opposition when it formed in late 2012, but due to the Coalition’s disorganization, the U.S. has since “sidelined” it and is now coordinating military aid directly with Brigadier General Salim Idris and the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army.

The Coalition isn’t the only Syrian opposition group with an official diplomatic presence in the United States. And it, too, is run by Syrian-Americans with otherwise ordinary backgrounds and careers.

The National Change Current, an opposition political party, registered a U.S. office with the Justice Department in February 2012. The group’s top officer in the United States is Tamer Mamou, a California-based businessman who runs a company called TimeShare Angels. Mamou did not respond to a request for comment from TPM, but his office referred us to Shadi Martini, a member of the party’s six-person executive board.

Martini said he was a hospital administrator in Syria up until 2012 who describes himself as “living now between countries.” He currently is in Bulgaria and said he also maintains an American residence in Michigan. Martini was highly critical of the Coalition and said his party has chosen to remain outside of it because the Coalition and its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, have both “failed.” He cited a lack of support “on the ground” in Syria as a reason for this and said the National Change Current has been far more successful in that regard.

“At the end of the day, you know what, it’s a local population. It’s the people who are on the ground,” Martini said. “So, no matter what you do, no matter how many figures you convene in one conference, if they don’t have the forces on the ground, if they don’t have their people backing them, they can make any kind of decision, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because the people won’t recognize it.”

Martini said the National Change Current currently has “like four or five people” volunteering in the California office headed by Mamou.

“Until now, it’s volunteers, but we are in the process of opening an office in Washington, where we will have like eight staff,” he explained.

According to Martini, the U.S. operation is designed to legitimize the party and to get donations.

“If you want to have a political presence in the United States, you have to be in Washington … so we have two purposes,” said Martini. “One is so people recognize who we are, what we are doing … And of course, the second aspect is … we are trying to do fundraising in the future.”

According to the Institute of Peace’s Heydemann, elements of Martini’s assessment of the Coalition may be correct. With a membership heavily composed of expatriates, the Coalition may present an appealing partner for governments eager to see modern, Western-style democracy take root in Syria, but the group does not have strong ties in the country. However, Heydemann said the international governments that are eager to work with the Coalition are trying to help them improve their standing within Syria.

“When the guys from the Change Current say they have better connections on the ground than the coalition, maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not, but it’s certainly the case that the Coalition is not well thought of on the ground and does not have a strong presence on the ground and that poses a real problem for the international community,” Heydemann said. “So there’s been a concerted effort by all of the main Friends of Syria group countries, the U.S., France, Germany, England … to kind of push the coalition on building its internal presence, institutionalizing itself, making itself meaningful to the lives of Syrians who are actually living this conflict. And so far, that hasn’t happened.”

Heydemann also argued the Coalition, and particularly its American arm, has been far more effective than its predecessor, the Council.

“The Syrian National Council was kind of notorious for having multiple people who claimed the role of spokesperson, none of whom occupied that position in an official capacity. There was huge incoherence in messaging. There was real difficulty in the coalition being able to engage with governments or with the media because there were so many competing voices, and so, by creating this office in Washington and hiring Oubab and Najib, this is really a step forward. It’s really a step forward.”

However, support within Syria isn’t the Coalition’s only obstacle. There have also been signs that the Coalition is suffering from internal strife. In less than a year of existence, the Coalition has undergone substantial leadership changes. In April, the Coalition’s original president, Moaz al-Khatib, confirmed his resignation, which an official from the group described as a denunciation of “the international community’s lack of real action on behalf of the Syrian people.” At a meeting in July, the Coalition elected a new president, Ahmad Assi Jarba, in a close election. The coalition also elected a new secretary general.

Heydemann said this leadership shift may have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the Coalition’s American office, which had a strong relationship with the former secretary general Mustafa Sabbagh.

“Najib [Ghadbian] was seen as someone who was close to the secretary general of the Coalition Mustafa Sabbagh and I think he benefited from that,” Heydemann said. “I don’t know and I don’t think anyone can tell yet what his deal will be with the new leadership.”

Though there remains some uncertainty about the U.S. Office’s status in the coalition, Ghadbian hosted a Coalition delegation, which included Jarba, when it came to the U.S. to meet with the U.N. Security Council last month. On July 26, Ghadbian and Jarba led that meeting together for the Coalition. Heydemann described the meeting as evidence of “what appears to be a decision by the new S.C. leadership not to make changes in its representation in the U.S.”

Though the future of the Coalition is not necessarily clear, the U.S. apparently remains eager to work with the group. On July 6, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued a statement responding to the election of al-Jarba and expressing hope the Coalition will be able to achieve further organization and give the international community a partner to help speed the end of Assad.

“We look to President Jarba and the new leaders to reach out to all Syrian communities and bring greater unity of purpose and further organization to the Syrian Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people,” Psaki said. “A united opposition is essential to achieve a negotiated political solution in which Bashar al-Assad steps down, and a new transition government leads all Syrians to dignity, freedom and hope for the future.”