One is fighting ISIS in Aleppo province. The other is a longtime American resident who has found himself atop an ISIS hit list.
Both are Syrian nationals who, not days into Donald Trump’s disastrous, indefinite travel ban on citizens of their war-ravaged country, are finding themselves treated like the terrorists who want them dead most of all. Both have also been invaluable sources of mine over the past six years, as well as partners of the U.S. government.
Radwan Ziadeh has been a fixture in Washington, D.C., and his home of Alexandria, Virginia, for 10 years. He first arrived in the United States in 2007, a year before Damascus issued an arrest warrant for him and he was thus able to obtain Temporary Protected Status as a refugee fleeing human rights abuse. He and his wife have since had three children, all born in the U.S.
“Congress granted me this status,” Ziadeh told me Sunday. “It was given to Syrians who live in the U.S. and can’t go back to Syria. Not only to Syrians, actually, but also Somalis and Sudanese and Yemenis. These are four countries now on President Trump’s list of banned travelers which were previously prioritized for Temporary Protected Status. In other words, America is abandoning the very people it once sought to rescue.”
When the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime began in 2011, Ziadeh became a globe-trotting spokesman for then-nascent protest movement, trying in vain to persuade the Obama administration to do more to intervene in daily massacres. I first met him in London after I co-wrote a who’s who in the Syrian opposition. Ziadeh was also quite helpful in feeding journalists like me leaked regime documents proving that Assad was personally overseeing a brutal crackdown on civilians or staging provocations designed to distract from that crackdown.
At one point, in 2012, he even served as de facto foreign minister of the Syrian National Council, an early, State Department-backed opposition umbrella organization that wasn’t quite mature or inclusive enough to attain the sought-after distinction of being the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” But Ziadeh was always one of the better representatives, opposed to the chauvinism and Islamism that hobbled other exiles looking to win friends and influence politicians, and much savvier about the inner workings of the U.S. government. He was interviewed by every major American newspaper and television network to advocate on behalf of his people.
It was a role that made him an even bigger target for Assad’s henchmen. “My brother was detained for six months back in Syria,” he said. “All my family members are now refugees in Turkey and Jordan.”
For all that, Ziadeh said, he always felt safe in America. He never imagined that his adoptive country could institute a blanket travel ban based on country of origin or religion. “This is something dictatorships in the Middle East do—but not a government in the center of the free world, which respects the rule of law.”
Over the weekend, however, he found that even his easily Google-able curriculum vitae mattered not at all when he was treated as a possible jihadist.
Ziadeh was detained at Dulles International Airport and questioned at length for two hours in way he hadn’t been at any time before or after 2014, when ISIS issued a list of its most wanted people, including 74 Syrian activists. “They put me No. 1 on that list.”
Ziadeh’s travel had already been in limbo. He had planned to go Istanbul, a frequent destination, to attend a conference on Jan. 23. But when he first heard that the White House was about to issue an executive order barring Syrian passport holders from re-entry to the U.S., he consulted his attorney about whether it’d be safe for him to go abroad at all. “He said ‘yes,’ because I wouldn’t be affected as I am already a legal resident in the U.S.,” Ziadeh said. “Nothing can prevent someone who has been here for 10 years from coming back.”
The attorney was wrong. Owing to the legal ambiguity and poor articulation of Trump’s ban, that’s exactly what happened. Two hours before the president signed the document, sending visitors from all seven Muslim-majority countries affected into a state of international chaos and confusion, Ziadeh’s lawyer told him he had to return to the U.S. at once or risk never coming back.
“I asked both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security what to do,” he said. “They both gave me different answers. State said they had no guidelines to follow with respect to my case. DHS said I had to talk again to my lawyer. But it was already 9 p.m. on Saturday night and I couldn’t find a flight home at that hour.”
Ziadeh risked the journey the next day, taking a United Airlines flight with a connection at Frankfurt. After some confusion by the German border guards, who first denied and then allowed him access to his second flight, Ziadeh landed at Dulles, had his passport confiscated, and was placed into a “secondary questioning area.” For two hours, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checked his bags and asked him probing questions about his trip, his contacts, and any people he met in Turkey. All, he said, acted with professionalism commingled with guilt. They gave him water, they made him feel comfortable.
“They were very nice,” he said. “You feel that most of the border officers are against this policy. One of them asked me about my opinion about the ban. I said, ‘I prefer to hold my opinion.’”
Ziadeh laughed. “I said: ‘I feel very bad for you. You’re wasting the resources on me rather than focusing on the bad guys, the true threat.’ One officer said: ‘I agree. But this is something everyone is still struggling to understand.’”
After two hours, Ziadeh was cleared by DHS for entry, but every time he travels abroad he’ll again be subjected to the same humiliating rigamarole.
“This ban is against American values and the America I know and I love,” he said. “I’ve been in all 50 states. I’ve been in all the presidential libraries… When Trump talks about the U.S. Constitution, this is something I can recite by heart.”
“In what way,” Ziadeh continued, “can you say that 136 million people affected by this policy are terrorists until proven otherwise? America is alienating all the Muslims who are in the same fight with you against the radical groups.”
One such Muslim is another Syrian I’ve known for years and have written about often in The Daily Beast. It proved rather difficult to get hold of Mustafa Sejari for this article because for two days he’s been attending back-to-back meetings with other members of his Pentagon-backed rebel group, Liwa al-Mu’tasim. Its sole remit, at least insofar as it remains Pentagon-backed, is to fight ISIS on behalf of the U.S. military.
Sejari, who was speaking not as the political director of Mu’tasim but in a strictly personal capacity, said he didn’t feel so much “betrayed” by Trump’s executive order as disappointed.
“We had a lot of hope that the rise of a new American leader who was not Barack Obama would shift things to our advantage,” he said, meaning not only against the jihadists but also against Assad and his coalition. “During Obama’s time, we were left to fight the Iranians and Russians and Daesh [ISIS] with very little support. I was hoping to come to America to talk to the Pentagon face-to-face and discuss our position and the war effort as an ally of the United States. Now I cannot come to show what we are doing, how we are fighting, for America on the front line.”
In a way, Sejari has the kind of U.S. government clearance that Ziadeh does not. “I’ve been vetted by the Department of Defense,” he said. “There are U.S. Special Forces embedded with my men in Syria. I have been in this fight for six years. Believe me, America knows who I am.”
The travel ban, he said, “complicates things” because “if there is no true partnership, then there can be no true fight against terrorism.” Morale in Mu’tasim has dipped since the executive order was announced, although Sejari said his men were greatly encouraged by the rallies at U.S. airports that sprang up in resistance to the policy. “It showed us that the will of the people can overcome the will of their leaders. It made us hopeful to see American citizens fighting for their rights.”
The problem is how to convey the complexity of this social-political divide to those Mu’tasim wants most to recruit—fellow Sunni Arabs who might be persuaded to join the war against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s extremists.
Already a targeted and reprehended proxy by many hardline Islamist factions in Syria, Mu’tasim’s soldiers will now look like hypocrites at best, and Uncle Toms at worst, for defending the government that continues to pay their salaries and provide them with arms.
“What’s very sad is that when we used to go on Western media, we would defend the U.S. as a force that was helping us, even if it wasn’t giving us all the support we needed and had asked for,” Sejari said.
“Now it is very shameful for us to do that,” he said. “How can we defend a country that won’t even let us visit it?”