Heart of Syria

In the constant argument that is Middle East politics it is very rare to achieve anything like universal agreement, but no one can begrudge what Hazem Chehabi did.

He quit. 

Since Chehabi resigned last week as honorary consul general of Syria in Southern California, he has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls.

All positive.

For 18 years, Chehabi, an oncological radiologist in Newport Beach, has volunteered to act as Syria’s consul general here. His office handled travel documents and birth, marriage and death certificates for the thousands of expatriate Syrians living in the Western states.

When the Arab Spring started to rain down on the regime of Bashar Assad, activists in Orange County began to call on Chehabi to resign. They lodged complaints with the University of California, Irvine, whose UC Irvine Foundation board of trustees Chehabi chairs.

Chehabi, on principle, refused to step down. He believed he was serving the community he cared about — not the Assad regime — providing help that people needed to get on with their lives.

Then came Houla. On May 25, government-backed militiamen attacked the Syrian village and killed 108 people, of whom 49 were children. The victims were shot at close range, beaten or stabbed. Assad has denied his regime’s involvement, but no one, least of all the honorary consul general to Southern California, believes him.

I’ve known Hazem Chehabi for years. He is a soft-spoken, private man, not given to dramatics or bluster. As the situation in Syria deteriorated, he wrestled with — agonized over — how to continue to serve the local Syrian community without appearing to support the Assad regime. 

One of Chehabi’s major concerns, which he kept out of the public debate, was for his extended family and friends in Syria; he was deeply worried about what might happen to them if he stepped down.

But after Houla, there was no more doubt.

“I never thought of myself as a Syrian official,” he told me by phone on Monday. “There was always a distinction in my mind. I was a physician first, volunteering to perform a service for my fellow Syrians. But it got to the point that if there were any hint that what I did had anything to do with this regime, I couldn’t perform these duties.”

Chehabi doesn’t believe for a second Assad’s denial of involvement or responsibility for what happened in Houla.

“Everything I’ve heard suggests these people had ties to the government,” he said. “The government will say otherwise, and I expect them to say otherwise. There’s a pattern to terrorize the civilian population. It’s nothing less than ethnic cleansing.”

Chehabi’s father knew Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, and Chehabi himself has known the son for years; they’ve met on several occasions. The last time Chehabi was in Syria, at the start of the protests and crackdown there, he tried to meet with Bashir Assad, but, for the first time, his request was denied.

“At the time he took power, we had high hopes,” Chehabi said of Assad. “He was young, Western-educated, open-minded. I am very disappointed by how things turned out.”

I asked Chehabi if he still wasn’t concerned about how his resigning in protest would endanger his friends and family in Syria.

“I’ve thought about this for a long time,” he said. “I decided these people are not going to be any more precious to me than the average citizen who is suffering day in and day out. I had to do what I felt was moral. I’m concerned about my family, of course, but I’m also concerned about the average citizen suffering at the hands of this killing machine.”

When I asked whether Chehabi has heard a reaction to his resignation from his family in Syria, he was circumspect. “I have to be careful,” he said. “I’ve heard indirectly. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Now, Chehabi’s foremost concern is for Syria’s future.

He remains opposed to military intervention.

“It will make things worse,” he said. “It will lead to more bloodshed and flat-out civil war.”

Writing in this month’s Foreign Policy, the analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests the United States take the lead in creating “No Kill Zones” where Syrian citizens can live free of government shelling and attacks and even opposition violence. U.S. and other troops would enforce these NKZs with armed drones and aircraft. 

“I would like to think there’s a way to create these without weapons,” Chehabi said. “I’d like to think we can appeal to the conscience of the regime that at stake is the future of the country. If this continues, the Syria we know will cease to exist,  and what will emerge are mini states along sectarian lines.”

Chehabi now tells people requesting official documents to turn to the Syrian embassy in Washington, D.C., or the consulate in Detroit — a major inconvenience. 

“It’s too bad,” he said. “The country is bigger than the regime; it’s bigger than the government. You should be able to criticize the leader without being seen as criticizing the country.”

That freedom, of course, is what much of the struggle of the Arab Spring is about. And in Syria, it is far from over.

After Houla, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued yet more rote, ineffective condemnations.

Some people wonder what took Chehabi so long to act. I don’t. I wonder what’s taking our leaders so long.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter at @Foodaism.