Syrian Reform Starts At Home: Beginning To Crack The Global Syrian Culture Of Fear

As we in the free-world have stood by and watched, 2011 has marked the awakening of the principles of freedom within the hearts of Arab people throughout the Middle East. Syria, which has long stood at the crossroads of the Middle East, today remains as one of the last functioning bastions of the secular fascist regimes. This is no surprise to the millions of Syrians around the world most of whom escaped the slavery of the Assad regime. The Assads have held power through the outright brutalization of the Syrian people which has created a global Syrian culture of fear.

The pathologies within Syria after nearly a half a century of rule by one of the worst fascist regimes in humanity are multi-dimensional. There are more Syrians living outside Syria than inside because so many have fled the brutality of the regime. And even though many of them now live in freedom after leaving their motherland, their behavior remains largely muted by the long tentacles of the Syrian government. Any public comments or activities against the domestic and foreign interests of the Assad regime by any Syrians around the world may place close or even distant family members in harm’s way for reprisals including imprisonment and torture simply as a result of a vocal family member in the U.S. or outside of Syria. Regimes like Assad’s know full well the impact which any global effort to isolate his government can have upon his longevity.

It is well known within the Syrian-expatriate network that the Assad regime has countless global sympathizers and agents who either directly or indirectly provide information to Damascus on any and all activities of Syrians who live abroad. In exchange for this information they may get a number of benefits from simply being told that their families will be “left alone” to actually receiving financial benefits from the Syrian security apparatus. At times this information will lead to the detainment and torture of other Syrians domestically in order to obtain more information about anti-regime activities. The information they obtain is used to create psychological countermeasures both in Syria and outside in order to prevent any type of movement against the interests of the Assad regime. One cannot overstate the depth of coercion these influence operations have utilized for over 40 years to frighten Syrians around the world into submission even within the United States.

The reality is that the “perception and implication of fear and intimidation” for those that escaped Syria can be overwhelming and paralyzing to all free speech. In fact in my own reform work, while I have never even been to Syria because of my own family history, that fear was conveyed to me as a grim reality of having family within Syria’s walls. So I remained relatively silent. As an American to this day I still cannot fathom that fear, but I realize it exists. Incidentally, my grandfather, Zuhdi Jasser, was an ardent democracy activist who often lived in and out of house arrest writing newspaper columns under a pseudonym “Al-Karim” against many of the coups and military regimes in Syria in the 50’s and 60’s as the Baathists consolidated power in 1963 and then Hafez Assad came into power by 1970. Assad’s iron fist was not to be messed with and eventually the people of Syria became quite passive, fearful, and inhumanly submissive to the regime. Repeatedly, Assad’s henchmen would make public examples of anyone who spoke out against the regime including the massacre in Hama in 1982 that murdered over 40,000 Syrians including women and children in just a few weeks. Hama became the standard by which Syrians measured the lengths to which their oppressors would go to silence them. Today, the people of Dara’a, Banyas and other towns are feeling “Hama Rules” as Tom Friedman described them, but will not leave the streets because they know the fate that awaits them if they do.

With the recent uprisings, the chatter about the activities of the ‘Syrian intelligence network’ (mukhabarat) has risen to a level I have never personally seen or experienced. Yet, the courage exemplified by the freedom activists on the streets of Syria has certainly spilled over to all those Syrian Americans with a conscience in the United States seeking to help them and get their plight heard. Silence seems to no longer be an option for many Syrian Americans.

Demanding accountability from leading Syrian Americans: the Chahabi case study

There is an evolving controversy in Los Angeles that is a microcosm of the national and global battle against Assad’s regime and highlights the fault lines between Americans who stand for freedom and righteousness and those who facilitate Assad’s pariah state. The history, background, profile, and influence activities of Hazem Chahabi, M.D. a nuclear medicine specialist in Newport Beach, CA who owns and operates Newport Diagnostic Center while also serving as an honorary Consul General for the Syrian government in L.A. can serve as a case study.

Our domestic approach to Americans who are Assad sympathizers needs to become transparent. It is time for Syrian agents on American soil to finally feel the long overdue moral and public outrage they deserve for supporting one of humanity’s worst regimes. Imagine Hitler’s inner circle coming to the United States either while the Nazis were still in power or even afterwards and using the booty from the Third Reich to promote influence operations in the United States without public critique? It is time to finally breach the public fault lines against sympathizers of the Assad regime and begin to counter the influence operations for which Assad’s agents on American soil like Chahabi have been at the center.

In mid-March, Syrian Americans of conscience staged a rally outside the Consulate General of the Syrian government in Newport Beach, California (Chahabi’s office) against the Assad regime and for better U.S. support of the uprisings. The protesters appropriately chanted, “Say no more fear! Syria will be free!” Ammar Kahf of the Syria Emergency Task Force of Greater Los Angeles, the organizer of the demonstration stated, “on March 15, Syrians protested 48 years of one-party rule, state of emergency and continued repression.” They held another rally on April 17th in Los Angeles, however this time they were met bizarrely and brazenly with an opposing rally by overt sympathizers of the Assad fascist regime. These Assad sympathizers who staged this rally of sympathy for Assad’s evil, had the temerity to give young Syrian American children signs that said such detestable lies as, “Assad is Peace”. How typical though for Baathists to use children to do their dirty work. Stolen right from the pages of the Soviet counterinsurgency manuals from which their masters have learned. Mary Slasson of Neon Tommy reported that the anti-Assad activists believe that members of the pro Assad protesters “are paid informants by the [Syrian] government.” It has also been reported that anti-Assad activists are accusing the consulate staff of snapping photos of them at rallies around Southern California and passing information about them to the Syrian government’s intelligence agency.”

Remarkably, Kahf seems to be the first Syrian American in the L.A. area to lead such an effort to openly call out Dr. Chahabi, an American citizen, for his relationship with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime. Kahf points out that Chahabi’s behaviors and position with the Syrian government as a Consul General are not compatible with his position on the University of California-Irvine Foundation Board of Trustees. I also believe more importantly his position is not compatible with his citizenship oath as an American. Kahf appropriately called upon Chahabi to either dissociate himself from the Assad regime or be removed from the UC-Irvine Foundation Board. Matt Coker of the Orange County Weekly seems to be the only one reporting on this controversy. He notes that, “it is the opinion of many Syrian Americans that Chahabi is a government stooge…”

But the story of Chahabi goes far deeper than simply his position as Consul General and his offensive lip service for the pariah state of Syria he serves. A little basic research exposes that Chahabi’s family is far more intimately involved with Bashar Assad and his henchmen than anybody has cared to report. And for a leading California physician who sits on a major university’s foundation board of trustees, has served on the California Medical Board, and donated vast untold sums of monies to UCI and various politicians across the country this should have been a public scandal long ago. Perhaps the courageous people on the streets of Syria can bring us to a teaching moment against the culture of corruption that connects Dr. Chahabi and his family friend, Dr. Assad.

First, a little relevant background. Hazam Chahabi’s father is Hikmat Chahabi (also spelled Shihabi) who was one of Hafez Assad’s right hand henchmen. He was a Syrian Army general who served as Chief of Staff of the Army from 1974-1998. He received a degree in “Intelligence” from the Soviets in 1970. It is well known that the many of the Baathists leading military generals much like Chahabi learned their advanced thuggery from the Soviets. Chahabi was part of Hafez Assad’s inner circle serving on the “committee in charge of running the country” along with General Mustafa Tlass and Ali Duba known as leading criminals against humanity in Syria during the regime of Hafez Assad. Chahabi was head of the army when tanks surrounded Hama in 1982 and committed genocide against over 40,000 Syrians including women and children led by Rifat Assad. There was a similar heinous massacre in Tadmur in 1980 against political prisoners with thousands dying in cold blood at the hands of the Syrian military. The Syrian Human Rights Committee has a detailed accounting of the massacre and murders as well as a number of other crimes against humanity perpetrated by Hafez Assad and his military (of whom General Hikmat Chahabi was a leading figure).

In fact, in his book, Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Harriri and its impact on the Middle East (2007), Nicholas Blanford described in detail the coordinating role which General Hikmat Chahabi played in the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and the control of that nation’s infrastructure through a vast network of corruption. General Chahabi was part of the controlling clique of Syrian military generals that included Abdel Halim Khaddam, Ghazi Kanaan, and Walid Jumblatt. Lebanon was basically a Syrian colony controlled by this clique. Blanford additionally noted that the Syrian government in essence looted the Lebanese economy providing billions of dollars of cash infusion (some placed it at $4 billion per year by the end of the 90s) into an ailing Syrian economy.

Specifically, Blanford gives a number of examples of the deep corruption which this clique utilized to rape the Lebanese economy. He notes,

…Often using Lebanese politicians as front men, senior figures in Syria and their local allies are alleged to have made immense profits from the Lebanese reconstruction boom in the 1990s receiving protection commissions and securing monopolies in a wide array of sectors and selling goods and services at inflated rates…. Among the most well known was the awarding of Lebanon’s first mobile phone contracts to two companies, Cellis and Libancell, headed by Lebanese closely associated with Abdel-Halim khaddam and Hikmat Shehabi and their sons. With competitors barred from entering the market, these two companies were allowed to charge exorbitant fees, among the highest in the world at 13 cents per minute compared to 3 to 8 cents elsewhere in the Arab world.

Hazem Chahabi, M.D., Hikmat’s son, had been conveniently made Consul General in Newport Beach on October 12, 1995. He was obviously in place as honorary consulate while his father was still Chief of staff of the Syrian army and Hafez and his henchmen were still in control. In July 1998, General Chahabi handed in his resignation to Hafez and then joined his son in California for retirement. Mercifully to the Syrian people, Hafez died suddenly in 2000 at the age of 69. The ensuing power struggle in various branches of the government, police, intelligence, and military as Bashar took over the reins resulted in some reports that Hikmat may have been targeted for corruption charges- a euphemism for competitive thugs vying for control. Hikmat left apparently to avoid this mafia-like battle. Since then Hazem’s father, General Chahabi has even reportedly returned to Syria a few times for rather public visits with Bashar that probably provided cover for his family’s loyalty to Bashar amidst various power struggles. The Chahabis to the best of my knowledge have never uttered a known public rebuke of the evil perpetrated by Assad or his madmen including Hikmat Chahabi his Army chief of staff for almost 25 years. In fact a simple case could be made that General Chahabi and his son have the blood and enslavement of thousands upon thousands of Syrians on their hands not to mention the raping and pillaging of the Syrian and Lebanese economies and the incomes of their citizens.

It remains incredulous that in today’s age of information, these details about the Chahabis are not part of the recent reporting and public discussion about the complicity of Hazem Chahabi and his network of influence. With Dr. Hazem Chahabi’s close familial connections to the Assads and the Syrian military, the next question is what level of accountability should have been expected by the American taxpayer and members of institutions to which Dr. Chahabi belongs with regards to his corrupt Syrian bedfellows. With contributions registered regularly to candidates in congressional races like Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), it does not even seem to pass the sniff test that an open foreign agent (Consul General) of a pariah state should have such major financial influence upon American institutions with no public or personal accountability at all.

There needs to be an immediate public investigation into what Hazem Chahabi received if anything in exchange for all of those donations and more importantly what impact his involvement at UCI and in various political campaigns had upon American policy toward the pariah state of Syria. There also needs to be an investigation into why Chahabi’s history was not a red flag to any of the institutions and politicians to whom he gave donations or was given positions of leadership. The Chahabis have given apparently vast sums of money to University of California-Irvine (UCI)- underwriting events like the UCI Medal winners dinner where they gave $100,000 in 2003. The Chahabis later gave many additional donations to UCI including the largest ever single donation of $1 million in 2005. It would also be interesting to know who the initial investors were in Dr. Chahabi’s Newport Beach Diagnostic Center opened in the early 90’s.

In essence as an American taxpayer with particular concern about the influence operations in the United States and the barbarism of the Assad regime against their own citizens, it is imperative for Dr. Chahabi to be questioned publicly about his complicity. The taxpayers all have an interest in knowing how much of his donations and contributions were directly connected to monies obtained from corruption his father and he were connected to in their leadership circles with the fascist regime of Hafez Assad and his son Bashar. The taxpayers have an interest in knowing what financial connections remain between Syria and the Chahabis. Were the millions he and his wife have donated proceeds from his practice, or were they monies obtained via his father or directly from the pillaging done by their clique during his father’s direct association with the Syrian regime, an association which his son continues to this day?

At the minimum, Chahabi’s much publicized philanthropy bought him a pathological blindness from the local community of southern California regarding the corruption in Syria of which his family came out of and remained uncritically and intimately enmeshed. Perhaps Dr. Chahabi’s move to the United States for medical specialization training and his posting as an ‘honorary’ Consul General combined with his father’s marginalization from Hafez Assad’s inner circle became an opportunity for the Chahabis to remain relevant and wealthy by becoming leaders in the current American influence operations of the Bashar Assad regime. It is exceedingly important for such an influential Californian to be transparent about the origin of the millions he donates to American institutions.

There is much to be concerned about with the sinister history, origins, and network of the Chahabi wealth and influence operation on American soil. It’s time to open an investigation and make an example of Dr. Chahabi. This should also put on notice every other Syrian-American citizen like him who enjoys the freedoms which America gives them while dishonoring our nation through their overt and covert facilitation of Assad’s pariah state of Syria. Our United States of America deserves better. Our motherland of Syria and its courageous citizens deserve better.

M. Zuhdi Jasser M.D. is a founding member of Save Syria Now!. He is also President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a former US Navy Lieutenant Commander and a physician in private practice based in Phoenix Arizona. He can be reached at zuhdi@savesyrianow.com

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