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Without A 'Comprehensive Strategy' To End Violence, Syrian Activist Relies On Hope


Our next guest is Mouaz Moustafa. He is an American who was born in Syria. He came to the U.S. with his family as a child and later worked on Capitol Hill. And when the civil war in Syria began, he started lobbying the U.S. government to support what he calls the pro-democratic movement inside Syria. He's now the director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which advocates for greater U.S. involvement in the conflict there. He's with us now from our studios here in Washington, D.C. Mouaz, thanks so much for speaking with us once again.

MOUAZ MOUSTAFA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm reminded that we spoke with you on this program last April after President Trump's first missile strike against Syria. And you said that you were hopeful that after that military action that something inside Syria would change. So first, I wanted to ask, what is your assessment of conditions inside Syria a year later? The consensus is that those opposing the regime are almost out of options.

MOUSTAFA: Right now, the situation in Syria has continued to get worse and worse. I've learned never to say that things can't get any worse because they can, especially in Syria. And it's super heartbreaking to see the suffering of civilians, men, women, children, elderly, the hands of this horrible dictator with his allies, Russia and Iran.

MARTIN: You were telling me earlier that you were shocked to think that seven years later this is still going on that you never thought that.

MOUSTAFA: Absolutely, I mean, it's always surreal to me that I'm still sitting here seven years from the beginning of the uprising. And when we first started the organization we thought it would be a matter of weeks and months. This was a dictator that didn't even cater to western interests. People were going out calling for the values that our countries here in the West, United States are built upon. And I thought that there was a lot more hope, that there would be a political transition much earlier on with a lot less suffering, but unfortunately, the world has deserted the Syrian people and have left them on their own in a big way against horrible odds.

MARTIN: Well, the U.S. and its allies have made a point of saying that the purpose of this strike was not to push for regime change only to deter the use of chemical weapons. How does that sit with you?

MOUSTAFA: You know, the strike is similar to the strike that happened last year which I applauded and I continue to applaud today. I think any time a single helicopter is destroyed from the Assad regime or a chemical weapons stockpile is destroyed then that is one less chlorine barrel bomb that rains down on civilian areas. That is one less helicopter that's killing civilians inside Syria. And for that I think the president deserves praise for his leadership in taking such a difficult decision but that being said, there needs to be a comprehensive strategy, one that brings an end to the killing in Syria once and for all. And let's remember that chemical weapons is just one of very few tools that the Assad regime uses against civilians - starvation, they use conventional weapons, white phosphorous. I've seen families burned. I've seen in his regime, prisons.

We helped a defector named Caesar who documented for the regime 55,000 photos of men, women, and children tortured to death documented by the state. And even after bringing that defector in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee where he testified, there was very little action - a lot of outrage but little action. And so there needs to be a comprehensive strategy that goes along any military activity that may happen that aims to end what's going on in Syria. And this regime believes it can have a military victory. That's because they have the Russian air force. That's because they have Hezbollah. That's because they have Iranian-backed militias, and the pro-democracy opposition has a lot of statements that come from the west in their support but statements don't go very far.

MARTIN: Do you still hold out hope for a political solution?

MOUSTAFA: The only thing that we're running on is hope. And the fact - every time I go back to Syria I go to the region, I do that regularly and meet with someone who has been displaced, who has lost a loved one, whose brother or mother has been arrested by the Assad regime. They know nothing about them. And you ask them, why are you in this place that you are here today? They understand the complexity of the conflict, but they very simply say that we're here because we ask for our dignity, for our freedom, and the world left us. But as long as they continue to fight for their rights and to continue to stand up against this horrible regime, then I can't be the one to give up on them. I think we try to fight for what is right until there is absolutely no more hope.

MARTIN: That is Mouaz Moustafa. He is the director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. That's a group that's been pushing the U.S. government to greater involvement in the Syrian conflict. He's a former aide on Capitol Hill. He was kind enough to join us at our NPR studios here in Washington, D.C. Mouaz, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

MOUSTAFA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.