In two windowless offices just one block away from the White House, Mouaz Moustafa is working to persuade Congress and the executive branch to put the weight of American power behind the Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
The 28-year-old leads the Syrian Emergency Task Force, the group that famously snuck Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain into Syria in May to meet with leaders of the Syrian opposition. McCain calls Moustafa a “patriot” and says he is “a tireless champion for the cause of freedom for Syria.”
Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank that supports greater American intervention in Syria, says that Moustafa’s group has been “indispensable” in fight to get American power more involved in the Syrian conflict.
“The Syrian Emergency Task Force, along with the Syrian Support Group, both have played indispensable roles in helping U.S. policymakers and lawmakers not only to better understand, but also to respond more effectively to, the escalating crisis in Syria,” he told TheDC.
When TheDC met Moustafa in late June, he looked as if the weight of Aleppo was on his shoulders. He had just returned from one of his regular trips to Syria, where the over two year long revolution-turned-civil war has not been going particularly well for the rebels. Estimates have put the death toll of the conflict at over 100,000 since March 2011.
Moustafa argues that if the U.S. doesn’t act soon to help the opposition forces succeed, the consequences could be dire for Syria — and bloody for America.
Among the parade of horribles Moustafa foresees is a decade-long civil war that tears the “social fabric of Syria apart,” that destroys the institutions that exist in Syria, that empowers Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah, that breaks up Syria into various fiefdoms controlled by different factions, that destabilizes Jordan and that allows Syria’s chemical weapons to spread to terrorist groups. And this, he warned ominously, could come back to bite America.
“The Syrian people are smart and they know the United States has the power to depose their regime tomorrow if they wanted,” he said. “They expected much more.”
“I think there would be a lot of people who would want revenge from the people who allowed this to happen to them,” he added, seemingly evoking a future in which a disconcerted group of rebels violently lash out against Americans if the U.S. doesn’t do more to bring down the Assad regime.
Born in Damascus to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, Moustafa and his family moved to Arkansas when he was twelve. He would attend high school in Hot Springs, become an American citizen and excel in soccer, which he says is “all I cared about” during his early college years. His Twitter handle today is @SoccerMouaz.
After college, he worked as an intern on the Hill for Arkansas Democrat Rep. Vic Snyder and later as a staffer for former Arkansas Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln. When Lincoln was defeated in the 2010 tea party wave, he briefly went into freelance journalism. But when the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, he found his calling.
Moustafa first worked for a group that supported the Egyptian Revolution and then as executive director of the Libyan Council of North America, which supported the Libyan Revolution. In that role, he says, he met with White House National Security Council staff, briefed congressmen and advised the Libyan ambassador to the United States when he defected.
But the revolutionary dominoes in the Middle East continued to topple — until they finally reached Syria in March 2011.
“When Syria began, it was scary, because it was much more home for me,” Moustafa said.
The Syrian Emergency Task Force is one of several organizations pushing America toward greater intervention in Syria (Moustafa himself is actually the political director of another.) As executive director of SETF, Moustafa says he leads a staff of eight in Washington and roughly an equal amount in field offices in Syria.
In the small office where TheDC met Moustafa, an American flag was leaning to the side, its base tipped over a bundle of open boxes. A Syrian rebel flag with the words “Freedom” hung on the wall, along with a map of the country. Above Moustafa’s desk was a framed document marking an alliance between the Syrian-American community and the Cuban-American community. Both communities, he said, understand the perils of “facing a dictatorship.”
Testifying to the gravity of the issues he deals with, Moustafa’s desk was littered with defense journals, like “Jane’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense 2010-2011” and “Jane’s Mines and Mine Clearance 2010-2011.”
While advocating for greater intervention in Syria, Moustafa says he has gone to Tampa to meet with Central Command, to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and to the White House “every couple of months” to meet with staff of the National Security Council.
And if you are wondering who is sorting through the Syrian morass to find groups that are suitable for American aid — in other words, not members of al-Qaida — Moustafa says it’s a task his group performs as well.
“What we try to do is make sure is that the aid is going from the State Department is going to the right people,” he said.
Americans are understandably skeptical about intervening in Syria. While Bashar al-Assad and his clan are authoritarian monsters supported by Iran and aided by Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah, the strongest elements of the Syrian opposition are Islamists, including members of al-Qaida. In fact, an Economist breakdown from May shows that 7 of the 9 main rebel fighting forces in Syria are Islamists.
“There are hundreds of groups, and most of them Islamist. So even worse prospects, right?,” Moustafa said when presented with the Economist magazine statistic.
He countered, however, by saying the statistic was actually an argument for why America needs to be more involved in the conflict. “Weapons are coming in” now, he said, and in the absence of American leadership, they are not going “to the guys we want.”
But considering the Islamists seem to be far and away the most successful and arguably most zealous of the opposition forces — in at least one case literally eating the heart of their enemy — wouldn’t American intervention just be helping to bring about an Islamist state in Syria?
“Anyone that tells you that they would know what will happen after [Assad falls] is a liar,” Moustafa said.
“I could tell you that when [the good elements of the opposition] are supported, people rally around them more, the hierarchy becomes more clear,” he added. “People are looking for a third option. Many people in Jabhat al-Nusra would like to find somebody else to join on to that agree with their ideology or with their outlook on Syria.”
Jabhat al-Nusra is widely considered the strongest rebel group. It also happens to be an al-Qaida affiliate. Late last year, the U.S. deemed it a terrorist organization. Is Moustafa suggesting that members of the group are not really supporters of it?
“Absolutely, by no means at all [do all those fighting with the group] identify with that ideology,” he claimed. “Let’s look at the Jabhat al-Nusra. Didn’t exist, then existed. Came up to numbers [of] about 5,000 or 6,000. Then we put them on a terrorist list — increase their profile and people stood with them. I think the way they were thinking is, ‘you don’t support us, you don’t give us arms, you don’t give us anything, but then you tell us whose good and whose bad within us?’ So first support, then dictate.”
The conservative Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes has argued, in a very realpolitik way, that the West benefits from a prolonged civil war in Syria in which Hezbollah terrorists supporting the Assad regime and al-Qaida terrorists in the opposition continue to kill each other. Moustafa says that while this may sound appealing in some abstract way in the short term, in the long term, such a policy would be disastrous.
“You don’t even have to look too far ahead to see that this is a disaster, and the thought that ‘just let them kill each other and see what happens after’ is only going to come back to haunt us ten times more,” he said.
“At the end of the day, Iran and Hezbollah, regardless of how many losses they have, they would have recruited more. They would have instilled their interests in the region, without the hassle of having to deal with a regime, at the same time giving a reason for extremist groups to take a foothold. In Iraq, it was the Sunni Awakening, for example, that got rid of some extremist elements. You would have that on a national level in Syria if you were able to save the country.”
While Moustafa praised President Obama’s June decision to provide some weaponry directly to the Syrian rebels after the U.S. concluded the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, he believes the U.S. needs to do much more. He says the U.S. must take the lead as the world’s superpower and “[unite] the funders” to “support the Supreme Military Council under General Idris,” which he believes will weaken the extremist elements among the rebels that are currently being funded by Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He also believes a U.S.-sponsored no fly-zone is necessary, and possibly strategic air strikes as well.
“We are looking for something in the style of Bosnia and Kosovo, where we lost no soldiers, where it was mostly an aerial campaign, where the United States led, and where you have democracies [today],” he said.
Among the legislators who have been most helpful to his cause, he said, are McCain, New York Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, as well as Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“As a superpower, inaction is seen as action,” Moustafa said toward the end of the interview. “We can consciously take the decision not to do anything. But I am afraid that we’re not doing anything because we don’t know what to do. And that’s not a good excuse.”
While Moustafa made clear he and his group are not calling for American “boots on the ground,” others argue it’s hard to rule such a scenario out if the U.S. becomes more engaged. The more involved in the fight the U.S. gets, the more responsibility it will have to assure victory, they say.
“People talk about the slippery slope like it’s a throw-away thing,” George Washington University international affairs professor Marc Lynch warned during a recent debate on Syrian policy at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. “You can’t do that. You have to think about what happens when step one doesn’t work.”
If the U.S. commits to a no-fly zone or targeted strikes, it will have crossed a red line, he argued.
“Once were cross that line, unless you can give me a clear story by which the conflict ends, then I think we are on a slippery slope that leads exactly to what everyone says they’re not talking about, which is relentless escalation,” said Lynch. “Because once you’re in, you’re in. You can’t say, ‘Oh, that didn’t work. We’re going to walk away.'”
Moustafa says he understands all the arguments against intervention, but he still believes it is in America’s national interest to take up the rebel’s cause.
“I know the appetite of the American public is tough. I know the financial obligations — I know, sort of, this president is very cautious and doesn’t want to be embroiled in another war,” he said. “But we also know that we are in a situation where we have to take some sort of course of action. And we must look at, at the very least, in terms of our national strategic interests here in the future.”
America can’t, Moustafa said, allow Syria turn into a “possible Somalia or Afghanistan that is located in probably the most volatile region, next to many of our allies, with regional spillover that’s already happened [and] that could happen on a greater scale. That, I think, is the greatest danger.”