September 10, 2013
You know you live in a whacked world when you wake up one morning and read Nicholas Kristof wants war, AIPAC is throwing its full weight behind President Barack Obama, a man many of its delegates reviled a few years back, and that in a desperate search for answers, the media actually puts a mic in front of Donald Rumsfeld, as if we want to hear anything from him but eternal teshuvah.
You know the administration is close to clueless when the president, roped in by his impulsive setting of “red lines,” may be rescued by his secretary of state’s impromptu idea for chemical surrender. Welcome to foreign policy night at the Groundlings.
In such chaos, I turn again to one man.
Dr. Hazem Chehabi.
I first met Chehabi a decade ago, when he was serving as California’s Honorary Consul General for Syria, a country that even then we didn’t exactly have drop-by-for-coffee relations with.
The soft-spoken, middle-aged physician has a thriving cancer radiology center in Newport Beach, but for 18 years he volunteered his time to help Syrian immigrants with their legal issues, and to represent Syria as best he could abroad.
In July 2012, after it became clear his former family friend Bashar Assad had chosen to crush the opposition with bullets, rockets, rape and torture, Chehabi stepped down from his post in protest.
From the beginning of the Syrian revolution, he has provided me with analysis and predictions that, looking back, all share one common quality: They proved correct. Hazem Chehabi is batting 1.000.
Naturally, now that things are really complicated, I called him.
I first asked him if he thinks there can be a deal that involves Syria giving up all its chemical weapons. Chehabi scoffed.
“I assure you nothing will come out of it,” Chehabi said. “There’s no way Assad will turn over his chemical weapons to the international community. He’s been very savvy. He’s outdone the president.”
As for the broader picture, Chehabi despairs.
“Of course, it has gone from bad to worse,” he said. “It’s gotten so bad with the sarin gas on one side and the atrocities committed by al-Qaeda affiliates on the other side, and poor defenseless citizens caught between.”
I asked Chehabi if he was certain the government was behind the sarin gas attacks. He preferred not to answer directly. But would it surprise him if Assad ordered it?
“It would not surprise me,” he said. When I mentioned that some commentators have suggested the rebels could have used the chemical weapons, Chehabi was dismissive.
“There were battles where the rebels lost badly,” he said. “They would have used them against government troops then.”
Two years ago, Chehabi called for Obama to support the Free Syrian Army with military and humanitarian assistance. That didn’t happen.
In the meantime, the Islamist al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra Front extremists groups have grown, financed generously by Qatar and Saudi Arabia — our allies.
The extremist factions can lure young men with more money and more advanced weapons. When these groups take a village, they set up a bakery and a clinic to feed and care for the people, then go about executing political opponents.
The Islamists haven’t yet taken over the opposition from the Free Syrian Army, but, Chehabi said, “They are getting stronger every day.”
America could not only arm the moderate groups but also supply humanitarian aid to Syria’s 5 million refugees through them, which would improve their credibility.
“None of that has materialized,” Chehabi said. “We have our own assets on the ground. I know for a fact we can do a better job supporting the moderates, supplying them. I’ve been saying that for two years.”
Chehabi briefly lost his ever-calm composure.
“I have never seen an administration squander as much as this has done,” he said.
So, now what?
If Obama decides on a military option, Chehabi said, he has to go after Assad’s troops as well as al-Qaeda and al-Nusra.
“If you’re going to strike, you have to strike hard and hurt his capabilities. You have to strike his assets and al-Qaeda. You have to give the moderates a break. This will not be a limited remote intervention.”
Anything else — anything else — will not be worth it.
Assad has hidden his best assets, and Chehabi said people in Damascus tell him soldiers and ammunition are being moved into schools and apartment buildings.
Meanwhile, what Chehabi predicted two years ago has come to pass: Syria has broken in three: a Sunni east, a Kurdish north, an Alawite coast and cities. Chehabi hasn’t heard from his cousins in Aleppo in two weeks. At the time they lost contact, they were down to two hours each day of electricity and water and living in hallways to avoid snipers. His wife’s family fled Homs and dispersed to Jordan and Turkey.
“I tell you, as much as I miss my dad, who passed away in March,” Chehabi said, “I’m relieved he didn’t live to see what is happening in Syria today. The Syria we’ve known and loved only exists in our memory. That Syria is long gone.”
To support humanitarian aid in Syria, Chehabi recommends one group, Syrian American Medical Society. sams-usa.net.