Middle East, New in Lobbying, Regional conflicts

Syrian opposition makes US push amid Kurdish gains

The main Syrian opposition is reactivating its Washington presence after a years-long lull amid steady gains by rival Kurdish-led groups both on the ground and in western capitals.

Qutaiba Idlbi, the new head of the US mission of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, or Syrian National Coalition, has registered as a foreign agent of the Turkey-based coalition. A newly disclosed filing with the US Department of Justice indicates that Idlbi plans to lobby US officials while also engaging with the Syrian community in the United States to mobilize support for the opposition’s priorities.

The goal of the mission is to “represent the Syrian National Coalition and other Syrian democratic groups and organizations in the United States by strengthening bridges of communications with the American people and their representatives and government based on our shared values of freedom and liberty,” Idlbi wrote in his lobbying registration.

In an interview over email today with Foreign Lobby Report, Idlbi acknowledged that US policymakers have all but given up on their original goal of removing Bashar al-Assad from power.

“Our worry .., is that Syria, in general, has become absent from the policy strategy of the United States except for when it is a side-show for the policy towards Iran,” he said. “And that has not produced sound policies that bring forward a democratic future for the people of Syria nor fulfilled US national security interests or the values we stand for in America.”

The registration comes a few weeks after Idlbi announced over Twitter that he had been selected to take over the US mission. A 30-year refugee who was tortured after joining the protests against Assad in 2011, he graduated with a degree in political science from Columbia University this spring.

Charles Lister, a friend of Idlbi’s who heads the Syria program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Idlbi was a smart choice for an organization that needs a fresh start in Washington.

“He’s young, he’s US-educated, he’s a former political detainee. But he’s not a politician,” Lister said. “That speaks to contacting a different kind of generation, a different way of thinking.”

“I do think it’s a refresh from the things that we’ve got used to in the past,” Lister added. “I suspect there’s also an awareness that over the past several years the Syrian opposition has — well, fallen out of favor is certainly an easy way of putting it — with the US government,” Lister said. “It’s certainly become less relevant to the US government than … our Kurdish-led partners on the ground. I think there is an awareness in the opposition that they need to wake up to new realities and create a new and more realistic space to the US government to sustain any relevance that they might still have.”

Idlbi said his goal is to convince US decision makers that a political settlement in Syria remains a vital US interest even after the Islamic State, or ISIS, has largely been defeated.

“The issue is not necessarily that politicians do not show interest in removing Assad or not, but rather that they are not able to see this connection and how achieving a political resolution that puts Syria at the beginning of a long-path towards good representative governing is an issue that directly affects the national security of the United States,” Idlbi said.

“The emergence of ISIS, the Russian overreach in the region and around the world, how the refugee crisis contributed to the emergence of the far-right in the West have all resulted from the lack of interest and a clear strategy to respond to the events in Syria,” he added. “Our hope is that we would be able to help put all the different tools (sanctions, military presence, etc..) into a bigger strategy that would benefit the United States and the Syrian people based on a joint belief in a democratic future for Syria.”

“Syria, in general, has become absent from the policy strategy of the United States except for when it is a side-show for the policy towards Iran.”

Qutaiba Idlbi

Idlbi’s registration rekindles a US mission that has been largely dormant for years. The mission briefly registered as a foreign agent in 2013 and retained the services of the New York nonprofit advisory firm Independent Diplomat until 2018. Lobbying powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs and Qorvis/MSLGroup also supported the coalition-dominated High Negotiations Committee at one time.

The coalition however has lost traction in Washington since the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014. Looking for battle-ready partners on the ground, the Barack Obama administration joined forces with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). The United States hasn’t looked back since.

Having set up an autonomous government in Syrian regions it helped liberate from ISIS, the SDC has recently been expanding its lobbying presence in Washington. Over the summer the Donald Trump allowed a US oil company to sign an agreement with the autonomous administration, infuriating the Syrian opposition coalition (SOC), which considers the main Kurdish armed faction, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to be a terrorist group aligned with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

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“Such agreements pose a threat to Syria’s unity and sovereignty as well as cause harm to the Kurdish issue,” the coalition said in an Aug. 4 press statement. “The SOC stresses that separatist terrorist organizations with anti-national agendas should not be given further opportunities for expansion and empowerment through frameworks that contradict the sanctions system and the positions related to rebuilding projects in Syria, which must remain fully linked to the political solution.”

Idlbi denied any concerns over the Kurds’ clout. But he said Washington needs to rein in its ally.

“We share with the US government that the SDC should break its links with all foreign terrorist organizations, especially the PKK, denounce those in its leadership who share the same links, be representative, as a de facto controller of NE Syria, of all local communities, break ties of the Assad regime, respect the sovereignty and security of Syria’s neighbors, and abandon identity politics for the sake of a unified Syria that can fit all Syrians with their different identities, cultures, religions, and languages,” he said. “The United States is the only country that can put the necessary pressure on the SDC to fulfill these goals that would make the path towards a political solution in Syria easier to achieve.”