A New Lobby Forms to Get U.S. Guns to Syrian Rebels

Mazen Asbahi and his Syrian support group want to oust Assad by any means—and they’re pushing to get the president on board. Eli Lake Reports.

D. Leal Olivas / Getty Images, file

At a time when America’s Arab allies are reportedly funneling cash and rifles to Syrian rebels, the United States itself has—at least publicly—stayed on the sidelines.

The Syrian Support Group is hoping to change this. The U.S.-based organization has spent the past couple of weeks banging on the doors of congressmen, government agencies, and think tanks, making the case that arming Syria’s rebels in order to oust President Bashar al-Assad is a sound strategic investment. The SSG’s website calls the Free Syrian Army—the main opposition group comprised of 10 regional militias and military defectors—a “group of Heroes” and accepts donations via PayPal. The group says it has received donations from 59 people, in amounts no larger than $5,000, since launching in December.

Many other Syrian-American organizations back the exiled opposition umbrella group known as the Syrian National Council. And while these groups have pushed President Obama to take a more active role in the rebellion, they generally haven’t asked for detailed military aid to fighters on the ground.That’s where the SSG differs. “The end goal … is to change U.S. policy so the Obama administration supports the Free Syrian Army in terms of logistics, sophisticated weapons and training,” says co-founder Louay Sakka.

The group’s legal counsel, Mazen Asbahi, is a Chicago lawyer who was a fellow for Leadership Greater Chicago in 2007, an honor that he shares with several key Obama allies, including White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and first lady Michelle Obama. In 2008, Asbahi briefly served as the director of Muslim and Arab American outreach for the Obama campaign, a position he describes as a “dream job.” He resigned after some conservative blogs discovered he had served for a few weeks in 2000 on the board of Allied Assets Advisors Fund. Also on the board of the Islamic investment fund at the time was Jamal Said, an unindicted co-conspirator in the Justice Department’s case against a Texas-based charity called the Holy Land Foundation, an alleged Hamas fundraiser.

Asbahi says he resigned from the board as soon as he learned of Said’s involvement in 2000. He says his resignation eight years later from the Obama campaign “was the right thing for the campaign, even though this was a silly guilt by association attack.”

Asbahi says he remains an Obama supporter, but doesn’t have any special connections at the White House. A White House spokesman declined to comment on Asbahi or the Syrian Support Group.

Convincing the U.S. government to arm a rebel movement requires a multi-pronged attack. That job is handled by Brian Sayers, the SSG’s de facto lobbyist. A former political officer for NATO, Sayers is now the Syrian group’s full-time director of government relations. A typical day for Sayers begins at 5 a.m., with a conference call assessing the previous 12 hours of developments in Syria. On Friday, for example, he spoke with a Syrian citizen based in the U.S. who serves as his operations and intelligence officer, and discussed the defection of a Syrian Air Force pilot who defected to Jordan. They went over casualty reports gleaned from military councils on the ground, and reports of a visual sighting of a transport of heavy weapons for the Syrian army.

Later that day, Sayers headed off to a think tank, to join Sakka for a briefing with congressional staffers. During the PowerPoint presentation, Sakka and Sayers were asked about rumors that some of the fighters are members of al Qaeda. Sakka said his network had discovered a camp of 400 ultrareligious fighters near the border of Syria who appeared to have outside assistance believed to be al Qaeda. But for the most part, they say, the rebel commanders want Syria to be a multiethnic democracy, a claim that is met with skepticism from some in the audience. One audience member asked how they knew the commanders would keep their word about supporting secular democracy once they attained power. Sakka said this is what their contacts told them.

One challenge for Sayers is that many in Congress and the administration oppose arming Syria’s rebels for now. Not only is there little credible information about who the Free Syrian Army is, but there are also concerns that weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda or others. “There's a tension in Syria policy,” says Robert Zarate, the policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative think tank. “Many people in Washington want Assad to be history. At the same time, given past experiences with certain Iraqi, Iranian, and Egyptian dissident groups, people are critically consuming and cautiously vetting any information conveyed to them about Syria's armed opposition."

Duane Clarridge, the CIA officer who devised and oversaw the agency’s operation to arm the Nicaraguan rebel fighters known as the Contras between 1981 and 1984 said, “you have to be very careful with anyone claiming to represent certain key people or claiming to be able to provide access and delivery methods to the insurgents ... this could lead you down a rabbit hole.”

A State Department official said that the SSG wouldn’t be getting a meeting with Fred Hof, the U.S. special envoy to the Syrian opposition, or Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria, two major policymakers at the State Department. “This ought to tell you about where the State Department is on the policy question of providing lethal aid to the Free Syrian Army. We are still opposed to providing lethal aid,” the official said.

Sakka says he initially formed a group called the Syrian Expatriate Organization in 2011, which advocated a nonviolent approach to achieving democracy in Syria. But after watching videos of what became known as the clock-tower massacre in April, he began looking into how to arm the Syrian opposition. “We realized at that time, the regime will only be moved by force,” he said.

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In November, Sakka says, he started contacting, via Skype and Facebook, different regional commanders fighting on the ground. “We sent people to Turkey in late December and early January to make face to face connections with our new Skype and Facebook friends leading the revolution in Syria,” Sakka said.

Working closely with the SSG is a chain-smoking former Syrian army captain who says he led 350 fighters until last summer in the city of Zabadani, one of the first cities to fall into rebel hands. The former commander, who asked that his name not be printed, says he left Syria after the government issued a warrant to kill him and his family. He is in the U.S. as a political-asylum seeker, he says. Sakka says the former commander is a paid consultant who works on operational and intelligence issues.

Sayers, in the meantime, is focused on Congress. He says he is looking for a member with the connections to get weapons, communication, and jamming equipment to Syria’s rebels. “I would love a Charlie Wilson to do the work behind the scenes,” he said, referring to the Texas Democrat who used his influence to get Congress to bankroll the covert operations the CIA used to arm Afghanistan’s mujahadin warriors in the 1980s. “That’s what we want.”

Ausama Monajed, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, said he wishes Sayers luck in his endeavor. “It would be perfect if they manage to get that Charlie Wilson,” he said. “The problem is this administration requires 10 Charlie Wilsons in order to move.”