Syrian opposition took plea for US military action to conventions

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Syrian opposition leaders based in the United States took their plea for tougher action against President Bashar Assad to the political conventions in an attempt to bend the ear of decision-makers away from the din of Washington.

A flurry of panels, receptions and parties gave the Coalition for a Democratic Syria valuable face-time with administration officials, lawmakers and leading advisers from both presidential campaigns.

Opposition leaders said they made the case that military intervention in Syria is in America’s national interest. They argued the U.S. should push for a no-fly zone and arm vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), saying it would undermine Iran and keep radical Islamists at bay.

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“We think Syria has become in the heart of the American interest,” Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, told The Hill at a policy briefing in Charlotte. “It's not a Republican or a Democratic issue. This is why I think [it's important to] have communication and have conversations with the leaders in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party about the importance of the U.S. to take leadership on this issue.”

Coalition members said they encountered no fewer than four advisers to Republican candidate Mitt Romney last week in Tampa, and in Charlotte, they had a chance to hobnob with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a senior Obama administration official.

“It's a good opportunity to meet everybody at the same time,” said coalition member Mohammed Ghanem. “We want to try and understand the different parties' position on Syria.

“In Tampa, we got to meet Romney's advisers on foreign policy, which is something we couldn't do on Capitol Hill. We went to Tampa because we wanted to know Romney's position on Syria, and how a Romney administration would handle the situation in Syria differently than the Obama administration.”

Ghanem said the Republican advisers he’s met with have been particularly receptive to the coalition's message. Romney has long criticized Obama's reluctance to get more involved in Syria, where more than 25,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

“They are in full support of arming the FSA, working with the opposition, because they think that there are strategic interests for the USA that can be served if we got more involved,” Ghanem said. “I'm realistic. Of course, I understand that they're trying to hit Obama. ... At the same time, Republicans in general remain in favor of projecting power internationally.”

Democrats have stuck to their argument that sending arms to Syria would further militarize the conflict, even as the regime is using jets and helicopters to bomb its opponents.

Arming the opposition, former Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said at a panel on veterans, “is the tempting, quick-fix thing to do. But in this situation the more you put in there, the more it's going to militarize the conflict, the more it's going to deepen the civil war and, I think, deepen the humanitarian crisis.

“But no one should believe that anyone's sitting on their hands,” said Flournoy, who serves as co-chairman of the National Security Advisory Committee for Obama’s campaign. “Behind the scenes, there's nothing that is getting greater focus right now than trying to get cohesion in the opposition.”

Ghanem held out hope that a second Obama administration would be more forceful once the election is out of the way.

Former assistant secretary of Defense Douglas Wilson said the conventions give foreign leaders a “priceless” chance to meet America's up-and-coming decision-makers, who also benefit from the exchange.

“It's their opportunity to see our leadership prioritizing and sorting and shifting and shaping,” he told The Hill. “People tend to minimize national security and foreign affairs in this election because they say it's all about the economy. But presidents don't get a chance [to decide?] which issues are going to dominate their agendas.”