Syrian-Americans must engage the US system

Syria is burning. And the large, prosperous, and well-established Syrian-American community is doing very little about it. This can’t continue.

The reasons are numerous. Like their counterparts in the Middle East, the Syrian and Lebanese communities are deeply divided along pro- and anti-Syrian regime lines. There is a scandalous degree of overt support for the Mafia-like regime in certain quarters. There is also a more understandable sense of alarm, especially among religious minority groups, about Islamist influence in the armed opposition.

But many Syrian-Americans do not appreciate the extent to which their citizenship in the United States enables to them to potentially participate in a policy conversation that can have a decisive impact.

Many seem oblivious to the rather obvious point that if they were Syrians living in, for example, Canada or Mexico, their ability to influence their country’s foreign policy would be much less relevant to developments in their homeland.

Moreover, it would appear that most of those Syrian Americans who do see the opportunity do not yet understand how to influence US foreign policy.

The answer, like Poe’s famous Purloined Letter, is hidden in plain sight. You must embrace the system as it exists and use the levers of influence in the American policy-making and framing conversations that produce results.

These are usually misunderstood as simply boiling down to votes, money, and the media. However, foreign policy is primarily the purview of the executive branch, which has one extra and crucial requirement: ideas and information.

The policy debate on Syria has been intense. An extraordinarily wide array of individuals, many of whom have never set foot in Syria and have gathered everything they know from open-source Internet material, have become significant voices in that conversation. But because Syrian-Americans who are opposed to both the regime and al-Qaeda have not systematically organized themselves to engage in the American conversation, for the most part they have not had a seat at the table.

The results have been tragic: The mainstream opposition has been withering on the vine. In its place have inevitably sprouted the noxious weeds of “jihadism,” al-Qaeda, and foreign extremists. The Assad regime and these extremists have a deep history of engagement. In theory they despise each other, but in practice they find each other convenient.

The “jihadists” can tell their private Gulf benefactors that they are fighting on behalf of “Islam” against “heretics who are murdering Muslims.” Assad can tell the rest of the world that he is merely fighting the good fight against the most dangerous terrorists on the planet.

These two cartels of villainy found each other useful in attacks against Americans and their allies in Iraq during the past decade. And now, between them, they are burning, bombing, and smashing Syria into slivers of shattered glass.

But being effective in the American policy debate requires contextualizing aims within the broader context of the American national interest without reservation, hesitation, or compunction. It requires the slow, steady accumulation of credibility, access, and influence based on the quality of ideas, and the ability to communicate receivable messages to the crucial policy audience without worrying about political correctness. It requires a real existential leap of liberation from traditional approaches and a full embracing of the American system, political structures and norms, and broad policy goals.

The Syrian-Americans must learn how things work in Washington from all other successful American constituencies – ethnic or otherwise – and play the game according to its own rules rather than trying to assert a new set of imperatives. It means winning some and losing some. It means agreeing to disagree. And it means building coalitions with those who might otherwise disagree on almost everything else. There is no other way.

The other essential approach is a humanitarian one, and there are many relief efforts underway for the millions of refugees and displaced Syrians. An excellent example of that is pianist Malek Jandali’s “Voice of the Free Syrian Children” concert tour, which is designed to raise funds for humanitarian relief for the orphaned and vulnerable children of Syria.

Yet even that has proven controversial due to community divisions and tyrannical forms of political correctness. But it’s a fine example of what one person, with a few of his friends, can accomplish to help the most vulnerable and innocent victims.

Humanitarian efforts are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. There are too many influential voices in Washington that are wrongly convinced that “there are no good options,” or that Syria is all about Iran and Russia.

It is past time for the Syrian-American community to embrace its American identity, both in the American national interest and in order to save Syria from an even worse fate than has so far befallen it. This can and must be done.