Wrong Turn

Welcome to Assadville, USA

To most of the world, Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator, responsible for the slaughter of 100,000 or more. The Syrian-American residents of one Pennsylvania city disagree—strongly.

When the 51-year-old son of a Syrian legislator was gunned down July 9 on a highway outside Damascus, it would have been easy to dismiss his death as just one more casualty in a bloody and convoluted civil war that had already claimed the lives of thousands. But Nazih Zarif Mouhrez wasn’t from Syria, at least not lately.

Known as “Nick” to his friends, Mouhrez was a U.S. citizen who had traveled thousands of miles from his home and family in southeastern Pennsylvania to campaign on Syrian national television for the reelection of President Bashar al-Assad.

Mouhrez was from the former industrial center of Allentown, an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia. And like many of the estimated 15,000 other Syrian-American residents of the city, he was an Orthodox Christian, and a true believer in a Damascus government blamed for killing a 100,000 or more in recent years.

For them, Allentown is Assadville, USA.

Support for an authoritarian regime headed by a ruthless dictator may seem like strange position for a community so steeped in the culture of American democracy. But with Assad’s army standing as the only buffer between their ancient culture and its annihilation by ISIS—the majority of Allentown’s Syrian Christians are more than willing to overlook the contradiction.

Take Aziz Wehbey, a resident of the Allentown area who heads the Syrian Amarian Charity Society of Catasauqua—where Mouhrez was memorialized in July. Wehbey denies the legitimacy of the 2011 uprising against Assad, calling it “an orchestrated plan by sleeping terrorist cells” that wrangled support from a small portion of the Syrian population.

Speaking on the phone from Chicago, where said he was delivering clothing donations destined for Iraq to an international relief agency, Wehbey took issue with the West’s characterization of President Assad’s human-rights record.

“It used to be that if you said a word about religion or politics [in Syria] you would be questioned,” he said, “but the last time I was there, in 2010, you could curse the police if you wanted. There was more civil liberties.”

Syrians have been settling in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley for more than a century. Until the 1980s, newly arrived immigrants to the Allentown area found work in the dozens of Syrian-owned silk mills that once dotted the Lehigh Valley. They established a strong presence in local politics and law enforcement (even if they never got a shout-out in the iconic Billy Joel song about the place). Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, which covers Allentown and the former steel center of Bethlehem, now has one of the highest concentrations of Syrians in the U.S., according to Census data.

By all accounts it is a peaceful and law-abiding community. It is also overwhelmingly pro-regime, and since the start of Syrian unrest the region has become a hotbed of pro-Assad activity.

The pro-regime Syrian-American Forum—which has chapters in eight states—maintains an active presence. And the valley hosts a hodgepodge of homegrown Syrian-American groups—some with close ties to the government in Damascus. Their relationships with each other range from conciliatory to borderline antagonistic.

Some of the groups have been around for decades, others are fly-by-night. Three years before his death, in the early days of the Syrian uprising, Mouhrez was organizing for an Allentown-based group called the Syrian Arab League of America, which boasted of having 300 members from as far away as California. The fact that no one I spoke to in Allentown seems to have heard of it underscores the transitory nature of many of the region’s pro-regime organizations.

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Over the summer, as the U.S. began drumming up support for bombing raids against ISIS and training for Syrian rebel groups, Syrian Christians took to staging regular protests through the streets of Allentown and flexing their considerable political clout in opposition to American intervention.

In September, the district’s representative in the House, Republican Charlie Dent, broke from his colleagues in the region to vote against President Obama’s plan to provide aid to “moderate” rebels, citing the threat to the region’s Christians if weapons fell into the wrong hands.

And that jibes with his constituents’ views. Most Allentown residents of Syrian heritage are Orthodox Christians from the Wadi-al-Nasara region in western Homs province.

While the name translates from Arabic as “Valley of Christians,” Wadi-al-Nasara is ethnically diverse, and Christians, Alawites, and Sunni Muslims lived side-by-side in relative harmony for centuries until the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

The Sunni towns that border the valley were among the first to stage protests against the Assad regime. Islamist brigades were expelled by government troops in 2012, but returned briefly last year, and together with terrified Sunni villagers they staged a last stand in the Krak des Chevaliers—an 11th-century castle and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In press reports, local Christians recalled being terrorized for months by sniper fire from the ancient fortress, which was damaged during government bombing.

The region is now firmly under government control. But just over an hour’s drive to the east, outside the provincial capital of Homs, the Syrian Army has been locked in some of the fiercest fighting of the three-year civil war in an attempt to defend the strategic Al-Sha’ar Gas Fields that it recaptured in July from Islamic State forces.

With ISIS and other Islamic radicals running rampant over large swaths of the Christian Levant, many Allentown residents with roots in the region are rightly concerned about what the future holds.

Aziz Youssef, a 65-year old bus driver from the town of Amar—which sits in the shadow of the Krak des Chevaliers—says two of his cousins in Syria have already been killed because of their religion.

“Everybody is scared, everyone is afraid because we don’t know what will happen,” he said.

Youssef has spent 45 years in the United States, and calls America “his country.” But he bristles at the mention of U.S. support for Syrian rebel groups.

“It’s the wrong policy, the United States should be supporting Bashar al-Assad against the terrorists,” he said, going so far as to imply the Obama administration is secretly in league with radicals to topple the Syrian president. “They dropped equipment for the Kurds and it wound up in the hands of Daʿish [a pejorative Arabic acronym for ISIS]. Are you going to tell me that’s a mistake?”

Wehbey, the son of a Syrian government employee, is 42 and came to the U.S. in 1991. He is enthusiastic in his support for the Assad government and was arrested last year for throwing a shoe at a speaker while protesting a symposium on the Syrian crisis at Lehigh University. He says the speaker insulted his wife, and most of the charges, including assault on a police officer, were eventually dropped.

He views the encroaching Islamic State as an existential threat to Syria’s dwindling Christian community and says current U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq is a destabilizing force that will only strengthen terrorists.

“[The U.S.] is saying it wants to support the moderate Syrian rebels,” he said. “But where are they on the ground? They are nowhere to be found [because] they are all fighting with ISIS. I think we took the wrong side. If Assad is fighting ISIS we should be supporting Assad.”

Not everyone in Allentown’s Syrian-Christian community holds that view, however.

Ayoub Jarrouj, a retired steel worker and president of the Syrian Arab American Charity in central Allentown, labors to provide a voice of reason.

Holding court from behind a folding table over cups of coffee and donated pastries at his group’s headquarters, Jarrouj—who is an exceedingly fit 72 years old—blamed the pro-regime protests in the city on young, recently arrived Syrian immigrants who went to high school in Assad’s Syria and “are brainwashed to worship the leader.”

“I have a different opinion than many of the Syrians in Allentown,” he said, describing himself as a centrist in the debate over how to approach the Syrian crisis. “People who go and shout in the street represent two extreme factions, on the one side are those who want to see Assad wipe out all the opposition, and on the other side are Muslims who want all the Alawites gone.”

The only solution to the crisis, says Jarrouj, is a negotiated settlement that leads to a unity government of Syrian opposition figures and members of the Alawite-led regime.

“I think all the educated Syrians feel that way,” he said.

As for President Assad, Jarrouj says he has to go: “He’s killed 300,000 of his own people, how can he stay?”

Jarrouj’s position as a political outlier among Allentown’s Syrian community is all the more remarkable, considering the cozy relationship he once enjoyed with the governments of both Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez—who ran Syria for three decades until his death in 2000.

As a former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Jarrouj traveled regularly to Syria, meeting with officials, including former Foreign Minister (now Deputy Prime Minister) Walid al-Muallem. Former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass presented Jarrouj with a ceremonial sword.

A photo in his office shows a smiling Jarrouj next to the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun—who has called supporting President Assad a “religious obligation” and in 2011 threatened to unleash suicide bombers against U.S. and European targets if the West intervened in the conflict.

As recently as 2007 Jarrouj attended a dinner in Damascus with President Assad, and he says members of the government have contacted him in the past three years seeking his support. But Jarrouj hasn’t been back to Syria since the outbreak of hostilities; and given his increasingly vocal opposition to Assad’s presidency, he says he would probably not fare well if he did.

“They would have my head,” he laughed.

While it’s impossible to independently verify all of Jarrouj’s backstory, his status in the Allentown Syrian community appears unimpeachable. He has close ties with the city political establishment and serves more than 200 needy families a week through his food bank. Despite his tendency to speak frankly on political issues, he insists that neither he nor his group are politically active.

“Our main thing is charity work and helping the community,” he said. “We serve a lot of people of all nationalities and religions.”

That may explain why he and his associates have so little patience for those in Allentown that he suspects of cashing in on the crisis in Syria for personal gain. When the subject of Wehbey’s recent clothing drive came up, there were accusations from some at the table that the donations would go only to pro-government areas, and that Wehbey himself is likely on the Assad payroll.

When contacted, a representative of the Assyrian National Council of Illinois confirmed that Wehbey’s donations were part of a shipment of goods that left Chicago on Thursday for Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the EU reports the majority of Syrians displaced in Iraq reside.

And for his part, Wehbey denied his group takes money from the Assad government.

“All our work is done through the community, we will not accept any money from anybody else,” he said, insisting that 90 percent of Allentown’s Syrian community shares his views on the conflict.