Syrian-Americans want their voices heard in 2016 race

Friday 19/02/2016
US Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush talks to a Syrian refugee at a town hall meeting in Bedford, N.H., in September 2015.

Washington - The Syrian-American com­munity and its activists hope to do their part in electing a US president who will help their coun­try end its civil war and establish a political system based on democ­racy, transparency and the rule of law.
Syria has become one of the US presidential campaign’s major is­sues but not in the way many ac­tivists were hoping it would be. The Syrian crisis was transformed by Donald Trump and some of his fellow Republican candidates into an anti-refugee issue and an anti- Islamic State (ISIS) issue.
Lost in the rhetoric were the suf­fering of the Syrian people and their yearning for freedom and a peaceful transfer of power.
When Trump and other candi­dates used Syrian refugees as fuel for anti-immigrant rhetoric, the Syrian-American community found itself stuck between an administra­tion that it believes has “lost hope” for Syria and Republican presiden­tial campaigns that reduced Syrians to refugees and terrorists.
Kenan Rahmani, a Syrian activist, said, “Now we are moving beyond this administration, we are looking for the next administration.”
Mohammed Ghanem of the Syr­ian American Council agreed. “We have low expectations of the Obama administration. There is a widespread dismay in the commu­nity,” he said, adding that he did not foresee major changes in the policy of President Barack Obama’s administration towards Syria “bar­ring a major event like a large-scale use of chemical weapons”.
The Syrian-American community was investing in the presidential campaigns to help shape the think­ing of the US government, Rahmani said, explaining that its outreach to the presidential campaigns and to the Obama administration “are not mutually exclusive”.
The major Syrian-American or­ganisations released a presidential campaign scorecard, assessing each candidate’s policy on Syria, based on whether the candidate supports protecting civilians from the As­sad regime and Russian bombing, whether he or she supports the Free Syrian Army and whether the candidate supports fighting both Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and ISIS.
Omar Casino, who helped devel­op the scorecard, said the Syrian- American community would not endorse a candidate, preferring to remain non-political. Casino said none of the Republican candidates received a perfect score and some, such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, failed.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who supports a no-fly zone in Syria, has spoken out against barrel bombing and backs allow­ing vetted Syrian refugees to settle in the United States, scored highest among the Republican presidential candidates.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syr­ian diplomat and founder of People Demand Change, said the commu­nity’s strategy is to keep Syria on the front burner of the campaigns. He also wants candidates to under­stand that to most Syrians, the As­sad regime, ISIS, Iran and Russia are “one package”.
The Syrian-American community leaders say they have found Trump, one of Republican front runners, to be difficult to have dialogue with because he does not hold fundrais­ing events.
They are alarmed by Trump’s views on Muslim immigrants and his professed admiration for Rus­sian President Vladimir Putin. They say they have tried to reach out to his campaign and have suggested that he visit a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan to see first-hand the con­dition of Syrian refugees.
As for the Democratic candi­dates, Syrian-American leaders say Hillary Clinton is most knowledge­able about the realities in Syria and the person with the most experi­ence on the issue, having worked on the Geneva communiqué for a peaceful democratic transition.
A delegation from the major Syrian-American organisations met with Clinton at a fundraiser and its members said they were happy to hear her say she supports the no-fly zone and understands that the issue of how long Assad remains in power needs to be addressed in order to put an end to ISIS. They also noted that she was trying to distance herself from the Obama administration’s policy on Syria.
Syrian-Americans know that they have to work on two tracks: keep­ing their lines of communication with the Obama administration open while focusing their eyes on the 2016 elections to make sure that the next American presidential administration takes a different ap­proach to Syria’s crisis.