Syrian Activist Looks Up: 'For the First Time Ever, There's a Glimmer of Hope'

Apr 8, 2017

President Trump's missile strike against Syria is the first time the U.S. took direct military action against the Assad regime since the civil war began there in 2011. But some Syrians have been asking for more U.S. involvement for some time.

Mouaz Moustafa is one of the most vocal—and now, he feels that he's finally been heard.

Moustafa is the director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. He's an American who was born in Syria and came to the U.S. with his family as a child. When the war began, he started lobbying for support for the rebel factions fighting Assad's government. He famously helped sneak Senator John McCain into Syria in 2013 to meet with rebel leaders.

He sat down with Michel Martin on Saturday to speak about how Syrians like him are reacting to the strike.


Interview Highlights

On his reaction to Trump's missile strike against Syria

My reaction—and I can say that this speaks to the reaction of my friends inside the country and others—is that honestly, they are thankful for this president for taking action in response to the chemical weapons attack done by the Assad regime against children. And I think that we are all urgently calling to move to end the killing once and for all in Syria.

On if he's disappointed that Obama didn't take action

I'm incredibly disappointed in President Obama and his administration. We spent countless hours at the National Security Council and we had been begging—this is a time before ISIS or Al-Qaeda existed in Syria—begging for greater leadership, for stronger action in Syria that can help bring a political solution to the conflict. And I can tell you that this president learned in three months a lesson that his predecessor did not learn in six years.

On how he knows that this is anything more than a one-off reaction

Look, I don't know exactly what the strategy for this president is. But what I do know is that the Assad regime only understands that he cannot kill people if there is a credible threat of force. For six years, the dictator of Damascus has understood that there is no accountability—that he can act with impunity, using chemical weapons multiple times. And now that punitive action was taken for the use of it, I think that is the right approach with this dictator.

On what his network of Assad supporters of Assad is saying

First of all, across the board, everyone that we spoke to has said that what happened—the chemical weapons strike against civilians in Khan Shaykuhn and Idlib—was abhorrent, it was horrible. This was, again, even from loyalists that were reporting. They were shocked that the United States actually acted—that someone in the international community actually did something. They thought that it would be, again, more statements, but hollow statements, with no action behind it.

On what next and if he thinks there'll be more airstrikes

We have never wished that the United States commit troops to this fight. When I moved to the United States, I moved to Arkansas. I had many friends that served in the United States Army. I know the sacrifices. I know the people that came back losing limbs and people that lost lives. I understand, and I don't want American troops to go to Syria, to fight someone else's war.

What we do want is a political transition, and a real one—one that has an enforcement mechanism that would end the killing in Syria and end this horrendous slaughter that has been going on for way too long.

On what's his state of mind at the moment

You know, if you asked me a week ago, I would tell you how incredibly depressed I am, as many other Syrians were, at seeing another chemical weapons attack, seeing this violence going unabated, the slaughter in Syria continuing while the world watches or maybe makes some statements. I've learned not to get my hopes up when it comes to Syria.

But for the first time ever, there's a glimmer of hope that maybe the international community will wake up. That maybe with this punitive strike, it can sort of revitalize the United States and its allies to take Russia to the negotiating table and to lay out a settlement strategy. To bring an end to this war. And I can only pray for that.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've already heard this hour, President Trump's missile strike against Syria is the first time the U.S. took direct military action against the Assad regime since civil war began there in 2011. But some Syrians have been asking for more U.S. involvement for some time. Mouaz Moustafa is the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. He's an American who was born in Syria. He came to the U.S. with his family as a child, later worked on Capitol Hill. And when the war began, he began lobbying for support for what he calls the pro-democratic movement inside Syria. He famously helped sneak Senator John McCain into Syria in 2013 to meet with rebel leaders.

We wanted to know more about how people with close ties to Syria are reacting to the attack, and Mouaz Moustafa was kind enough to come to our studios in Washington, D.C., to share his thoughts. Mouaz, thanks so much for joining us.

MOUAZ MOUSTAFA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So what was your reaction? I mean, and I - also I'm interested in the reaction of people in your circle, which includes, you know, Americans like yourself who have deep ties to Syria, expatriates all over the world. And you also still have connections inside Syria. So what was your reaction?

MOUSTAFA: Well, my reaction - and I can say that this speaks to the reaction of my friends inside the country and others - is that honestly, they are thankful. They are thankful for this president for taking action in response to the chemical weapons attack done by the Assad regime against children. And I think that we are all urgently calling for - now to move to end the killing once and for all in Syria.

MARTIN: I'm presuming that you were an Obama supporter, given the fact that you worked for Democrats on Capitol Hill. Is there a part of you that's disappointed that his successor took this action and he didn't?

MOUSTAFA: I'm incredibly disappointed in President Obama and his administration. We spent countless hours at the National Security Council. And we had been begging - this is a time before ISIS or al-Qaida existed in Syria - begging for greater leadership, for stronger action in Syria that can help bring a political solution to the conflict. And I can tell you that this president learned in three months a lesson that his predecessor did not learn in six years.

MARTIN: How do you know that? I mean, how do you know that this is any more than a one-off reaction to some very horrifying imagery?

MOUSTAFA: Sure. Look, I don't know exactly what the strategy for this president is. But what I do know - that the Assad regime only understands that he cannot kill people if he understands that there is a credible threat of force. For six years, the dictator of Damascus has understood that there is no accountability, that he can act with impunity, using chemical weapons multiple times. And now that punitive action was taken for the use of it, I think that is the right approach with this dictator.

MARTIN: So you're obviously against this regime. But Assad obviously still has some support inside the country. Your network has some connection with supporters of Assad. What are they saying?

MOUSTAFA: Sure. So we've got networks in Syria, including within regime-held areas, to see what are the reactions to what happened? First of all, across the board, everyone that we spoke to said that what happened, the chemical weapons strike against civilians in Khan Shaykhun, in Idlib was abhorrent. It was horrible. This was, again, even from loyalists that were reporting. They were shocked that the United States actually acted, that someone in the international community actually did something. They thought that it would be, again, more statements, but hollow statements, no action behind it.

MARTIN: What now? I mean, it's been made clear for many years that the U.S. has no appetite to commit troops to this fight. But do you still wish that they would? Do you think more air strikes are in order?

MOUSTAFA: We have never wished that the United States commit troops to this fight. When I moved to the United States, I moved to Arkansas. I have many friends that served in the United States Army. I know the sacrifices. And I know the people that came back losing limbs and people that lost lives. I understand. And I don't want American troops to go to Syria to fight someone else's war. What we do want is a political transition and a real one, one that has an enforcement mechanism that would end the killing in Syria and end this horrendous slaughter that has been going on for way too long.

MARTIN: So then the question becomes what is the end game? What comes after? One of the issues within the United States has been whom to support, which rebel group to support, because some of the most effective opposition groups have been Islamist groups. And a lot of people within the United States object to supporting these groups. Are their constituencies within Syria that could effectively form a democratic movement?

MOUSTAFA: Sure. First, I want to tell you in terms of ISIS, that is completely alien and non-Syrian. And so the Syrian people have fought against ISIS way more than the regime ever has and vice versa. In terms of Islamist groups, things like al-Nusra, whenever there is even a lull in firing, the next day we see protests not against the regime but against Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups that are in the area. It shows that the Syrian people are ready to confront those groups that come with foreign agendas that have nothing to do with the core and heart of the revolution that began as nine months of peaceful protests.

But whenever we are not supporting and whenever other countries with different agendas are supporting with their own conditions, then people grow their beard to the length of their funder. But I can tell you that beyond that, we have the interim government that has some of its ministries inside. We have local civilian councils of people that are running schools and hospitals and education and health care and all these different things. These are the ones that should be supported in terms of administration and in terms of those that will take the fight to Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS and Assad.

I'm not saying this is an easy answer or anything's going to be easy once Assad leaves. But I can tell you that in the hearts of men, women and children and of defectors from the army and many others in Syria, their dream of a democratic, pluralistic country still lives. And we should not choose between Iran or ISIS. We should choose the democratic people of Syria.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, can I ask you - what is your state of mind at this moment?

MOUSTAFA: You know, if you asked me a week ago or something, I would tell you how incredibly depressed I am, as many other Syrians were, and then seeing another chemical weapons attack, seeing this violence going unabated, the slaughter in Syria continuing while the world watches or maybe makes some statements. I've learned not to get my hopes up when it comes to Syria. But for the first time ever there's a glimmer of hope that maybe the international community will wake up, that maybe with this punitive strike it can sort of revitalize the United States and its allies to take Russia to the negotiating table and to lay out a settlement strategy, to bring an end to this war. And I can only pray for that.

MARTIN: That's Mouaz Moustafa. He's the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. It's a group that is lobbying to support what they call the pro-democratic movement inside Syria. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Mouaz Moustafa, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MOUSTAFA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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