A Syrian-American group close to the Turkish-backed opposition has hired a top Washington lobbyist firm ahead of a looming showdown between the United States and Russia over humanitarian access to rebel-held Syria.
The California-based Syrian Institute for Progress hired BGR Government Affairs effective April 12 to lobby on “US and Syria relations and policy.” BGR principals Mark Tavlarides, a director of legislative affairs for President Bill Clinton‘s National Security Council, and Lester Munson, a chief of staff to former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), are lobbying on the account.
The Syrian Institute for Progress was formed in May 2012 and is led by President Saed Moujtahed and Chairwoman Susan Baaj, both of whom were previously associated with the nonprofit Syrian American Council, the largest and oldest grassroots organization of Syrian-Americans. The two activists also operate the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, a California nonprofit that brings children victims of the war to the United States for medical care. This is the first time the group has hired a lobbying firm in its nine-year history.
The Syrian Institute for Progress did not respond to a request for comment. But Moujtahed outlined its priorities around the time of its engagement with BGR in a Real Clear Politics op-ed.
The piece, titled “First Test of the Biden Team in Syria,” urges the Joe Biden administration to take a strong stance as the UN Security Council prepares to debate reauthorizing the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria in July. Bab al-Hawa is the only crossing point into Syria that remains open, providing access to food and medicine for millions of people in Idlib and other parts of opposition-held northwest Syria without having to go through the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
“The Biden administration has taken positive steps to shore up American alliances around the world. It now needs to harness those relationships to help the suffering citizens of Syria,” Moujtahed wrote. “Specifically, it needs to pressure China and Russia to allow continued U.N. humanitarian access to Syria. It must also rally European nations and Arab states to fulfill donor pledges for Syria.”
Chad Brand, the government relations officer at the Syrian American Council, said Bab al-Hawa was a top lobbying priority for his and many other Syrian-American groups.
“The Syrian-American community is deeply concerned about this issue and has been very engaged in getting the message out to members of Congress and the Biden administration,” Brand told Foreign Lobby Report. “Russia is threatening to deny humanitarian aid to millions of Syrians not under the control of Bashar al-Assad.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed the administration’s intent to keep Bab al-Hawa and reopen two other access points, at Bab al-Salam and Al Yarubiyah, at a March 29 UN Security Council briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria.
“Some may argue that reauthorizing humanitarian crossings and providing cross-border aid would in some way infringe on the sovereignty of the Syrian regime,” Blinken said at the time. “But sovereignty was never intended to ensure the right of any government to starve people, deprive them of lifesaving medicine, bomb hospitals, or commit any other human rights abuse against citizens.”
Moujtahed’s group also advocated for passage of Syria sanctions legislation known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and has raised concerns about the creation of a semi-autonomous region by US-backed Syrian Kurds in northeast Syria, calling instead for a “united Syria.” The lobbying engagement comes as Syrian Kurdish military forces recently hired their own lobbyist while the Washington Free Beacon reported Wednesday that Republican critics of the Biden administration are raising concerns that the president has imposed no new Caesar Act sanctions since taking office.