Biden tells Syrian activists he still thinks Assad must go

Josh Rogin

Now that he’s campaigning in earnest, President Biden more often finds himself talking with regular Americans who in turn get a rare opportunity to bend the ear of the leader of the free world. These exchanges offer a window into what the president is thinking and saying when he’s outside the view of cameras (and beyond his handlers’ reach).

Three Syrian American activists took advantage of their audience with Biden at a private fundraiser on June 27 in Maryland to implore him to do more to oppose Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and protect innocent Syrian civilians. Encouragingly, these activists told me, Biden not only seemed to care deeply about the plight of Syrians but also seemed to want to do more about it. Yet they also noted that the president’s statements on Syria don’t match his own administration’s current policies. They are right on both counts.

Alaa Tello, a Syrian American from Massachusetts, said she told Biden, “Assad must go.” Biden then responded, according to Tello, “I agree.” That contrasts sharply with his administration’s own recent actions, which include telling Arab countries in the Persian Gulf that the United States won’t oppose their normalization of Assad and failing to implement U.S. sanctions against Assad’s enablers.

Biden was vice president when the Obama administration first declared in 2011 that “Assad must go.” Current administration officials don’t say that anymore, in part because Assad doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But the activists’ conversations with the president were a sign that Biden still believes it, Tello told me afterward.

Tello pressed the president to help the Syrian people free themselves from the grip of Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners, whose campaign of mass atrocities is now in its 13th year.

“He said, ‘I can’t promise you, but I will do the best I can,’” Tello told me. “He cared. He engaged in the conversation with a high level of empathy, and I felt a lot of hope that the United States and the president will help the Syrian people.”

Alaa Tello and President Biden at a fundraiser in Chevy Chase on June 27. (Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis)

A National Security Council spokesperson told me: “We will not normalize relations with the Assad regime without authentic progress toward a political solution to the conflict, and we are aligned with our Arab partners on the ultimate objectives.”

Tello’s husband, Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis,a physician, told me he implored Biden to pay more attention to Syria’s northwest Idlib province, where more than 3 million internally displaced civilians are living in squalor, cut off from the world, and enduring constant attacks from Syrian and Russian forces.

“We have to save Idlib,” Ghbeis told me he told Biden. “Please save Idlib, Mr. President.” Biden responded: “I hear you, but I can’t send U.S. soldiers to Syria.” Ghbeis answered, “Mr. President, no need to, we can do it, we can protect ourselves, we just need more support from the U.S.”

Ghbeis spelled out the specific asks of the Syrian American activists in a op-ed Wednesday in the Hill that he co-wrote with former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Ghbeis and Engel want the Biden administration to actively oppose Assad’s further diplomatic rehabilitation, including his possible attendance at an international climate conference later this year in the United Arab Emirates. The Arab League welcomed Assad back as a member this year.

Syrian activists also want the administration to publicly support a bipartisan bill called the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, which would stiffen penalties on any entity that aids the Assad regime, until or unless the Syrian government ceases its atrocities. Lastly, they want Biden to give Syrians living outside Assad’s rule more humanitarian aid and economic support.

Ghbeis is active in a nonprofit organization called Citizens for a Secure and Safe America, which advocates on behalf of the Syrian opposition. The group’s spokesperson, George Stifo, also a Massachusetts resident, was also at the event, where he had his own interaction with Biden.

“Mr. President, if we had stopped the Russians in Syria, we would not have seen the war in Ukraine,” Stifo told me he told Biden, arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin became emboldened after getting away with atrocities in Syria. Stifo says that the president responded by saying he would not permit the Russians to succeed again.

One might think that the president was just telling the Syrian activists what they want to hear. But Syrian Americans know from experience that these quick chats with the commander in chief can have real influence. In 2018, after a different Syrian activist met with President Donald Trump at a fundraiser, he took her story to heart. Trump ended up changing U.S. policy, directing his officials to use diplomatic tools to prevent a Syrian attack on Idlib at the time — which they did with some success.

Biden officials like to think they run a tighter ship and that the president won’t change U.S. policy after a few conversations. But you never know.

What comes out of this particular exchange remains to be seen. But all the Syrians’ specific policy asks are part of a broader, valid concern about the Biden administration’s Syria policy. They see the administration as lacking initiative and willingness to get deeply involved in the diplomacy needed to negotiate a just end to the war.

“We really need to push the political process, and the U.S. needs to lead on that front,” Ghbeis told me. “That has not been the case for the last six years.”

In the past, Biden has expressed the view that the United States should lead the international diplomacy on Syria and use pressure to stop Assad from slaughtering civilians with impunity. Perhaps his encounter with the activists will lead him back to this position. Even after all this time, it’s still the right thing to do.