Dr. Zaki Lababidi is a Syrian American political activist and cardiologist from Scottsdale, Arizona. He is the current president of the Syrian American Council, the largest Syrian American grassroots organization in the United States. He has been active with the Syrian American Council since its inception in 2005 and has previously served as the Government Relations Committee Chairman and National Vice President for the organization.
Through his various work on leadership and organizing committees, Dr. Lababidi has been instrumental in establishing strong relationships with the Syrian opposition on all levels, including scholars like Michel Kilo and Burhan Ghalouin, members of the etilaf, and especially higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) members the likes of Dr. Riad Hijab and Dr. Nasr al-Hariri, as well as activists and local councils on the ground in an effort to get their voice and messages to all the United States Government branches, think tanks and decision-makers.
He has also played an effective role in strengthening the relationship between the Syrian American community and community leaders in an effort to ensure unity and uniformity in messaging when speaking on the Syrian issue.
The Observer: The Syrian American Council (SAC) is the oldest Syrian community organization. Many of the current leaders of other groups were at one time members of the SAC. Is it a positive sign that there are now plenty of Syrian organizations rather than one big group?
Dr. Lababidi: Well, Syrian organizations. Is it a good idea to have many Syrian organizations? You are right; the Syrian American council is the oldest political organization. It was founded in 2005, before the Revolution. At that time, President W. Bush was threatening the butcher of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, of invading Syria, changing the regime, as they did in Iraq because he accused the butcher of Syria of sending fighters to kill American soldiers in Iraq. He accused them of sending terrorists, extremists, and al-Qaeda terrorists up to Iraq to kill American soldiers, which truly happened. At that point, a group of Syrians in Chicago was very concerned about Syria being destroyed as Iraq was destroyed. And since the goal was changing the regime, and that was the goal for a lot of Syrians in the United States, we thought that we can work as a political organization with the United States government and congress to change the regime but find a way to do that without destroying the infrastructure of the country and the Syrian institutions of government. After the Revolution, of course, a lot of Syrians found that this was the only organization that existed already and a lot of work was done by the community through the Syrian-American council. Then, as is said, many organizations formed by the Syrian community, which is a positive thing in my opinion. People participated in the lobbying of the government in DC and congress to advance the course of freedom and liberty in their beloved country, Syria. I think as long as the organizations work together to achieve the goal of putting an end to the dictatorship of the Assad family in Syria and securing democracy and freedom for the Syrian people, then there’s no issue.
The Observer: In the first months and years of the Syrian revolution, the Syrian community in the United States played a huge role in advocacy, lobbying, and relief. What are the major achievements of the community at the time?
Dr. Lababidi: The Syrian-American community started to be very active, very early on in the revolution. The hope was, in the beginning, to achieve a quick victory, like what happened in Tunisia and Libya. Putting an end to the dictatorship regime and forming a democratic government, having the reelection in Syria, and establishing democracy as the system of governance. Establishing freedom of speech, liberty for all Syrians, and putting an end to the martial laws that ruled the country since Hafez Assad came into power in 1971. In doing that, there were a lot of organizations that came to life working with Congress, with the administration in D.C. towards that goal. Unfortunately, the Assad Regime brought major destruction in the second year, 2012, to the country, destroying civilian neighborhoods and the infrastructure of Syria, killing a lot of people in the process. That pushed the community into humanitarian relief efforts, trying to help their countrymen who are under attack by the vicious army supported by sectarian militias, who killed people just to terrorize the population and force mass exit and immigration, internally and externally. There were millions of people who were displaced inside the country and neighboring countries. That forced the community into a huge humanitarian operation and medical relief. Many organizations were formed and were very successful at mobilizing the community into action: building hospitals, clinics, delivering free care, having medical missions to Syria and neighboring countries to deliver free care to Syrians in most need. Besides that, political organizations were formed, as we stated above, to lobby the administration and Congress to put an end to a brutal regime that ended using chemical weapons against civilians, killing 1,400 people in less than 12 hours. Many of them were women and children. That was actually a huge, quick mobilization for the Syrian community, pulling everybody into action and teaching the community a big practical lesson in organizing, working together, and helping each other, and helping Syrians inside and outside the country as much as we can.
The Observer: What are the major achievements of the Syrian American community
Dr. Lababidi: Well, one of the major achievements for the Syrian-American community and organizations is mobilizing the community into action. Action on many fronts, one is humanitarian, as members try to help their fellow Syrians and to make their lives a little easier after the criminal regime destroyed everything in the country and turned half of the population into internal and external refugees. Second would be medical. Many successful organizations helped in the medical field. That was much needed, especially in the years where the people were being attacked in every way possible and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were injured and needed medical attention that was not available, unfortunately. Hospitals, clinics, and other facilities were actually built out of nothing to provide services. The Syrian-American community kept the pressure on the administration and Congress to provide aid to Syrians all over the world. The United States has been the number one donor to the Syrians in the last ten years. One of the other achievements is securing that Congress and the administration threw out the Caesar Act because it does not work with the criminal regime in Damascus and will apply sanctions on the perpetrator of the regime. But not only that, any company that works with the regime will get a sanction. We threw out the Caesar Act to make sure there would be no money for rebuilding under the Assad Regime. And we’re still working to achieve democracy and freedom in Syria through a lot of means. The recent call from Secretary Blinken on other countries, to recognize the sham election that happened in Damascus is illegitimate and the results are not acceptable, and that the election was not free or fair, is a really huge achievement. That this president, the so-called president, is not recognized by major powers in the world, will continue to work on multiple bills in the congress that will recognize Bashar al-Assad as a war criminal so nobody can work with him. Thank you.
The Observer: How do you characterize the role of the Syrian community in the United States now that the revolution is on the decline?
Dr. Lababidi: I beg to disagree on this point, I don’t think the Revolution and the decline, I really think the revolution for the most part achieved its goal of liberating the Syrian people of their fear of a brutal dictator regime that worked over the years, like a mafia terrorizing its own people. Many in the country disappeared, even before the Revolution, without a trace. Many were terrorized in prisons and let go only to find out that these people forgot what they went through. They became crazy and mentally unstable, because of the torture they went through over the years in assassination camps. The death squads that the regime has, killing people all over Syria. All of this led to the revolution that literally liberated the Syrian people from their fear of this brutal regime that terrorized them for over 40 years when the Revolution started, and now ten more years of bringing total destruction to the country, to the civilian population. So, in that, the Revolution achieved its goal, liberating the man, liberating the human in Syria. I think we are at a point where we are not going back. We are at a point of no return. It is a matter of time before this criminal regime falls, and the new day in Syria comes and brings democracy and freedom for the people. The role of the Syrian community is to lead. The role of the Syrian community, in this, is to lead Syrians around the world in making this happen, as soon as possible. The situation in the country is unsustainable. What people are going through in Syria now, cannot be maintained. Everybody in the country believes now that there is no going forward, there is no turning page with the Assad Regime in place. There is no solution for Syria with the Assad Regime in place. What’s happening in Syria is not going to stay in Syria, and this is why we, the Syrian-American community, in D.C., in Europe, in the Middle East, have to push for a solution in Syria as soon as possible. Save the people, save Syria from continuing destruction, spreading terrorism, and the number one country in the world probably exporting drugs all over the area and Europe. All this must end, and go back to being a beautiful country, and a contributing country to the area it lives in the world.
The Observer: Many try to convince the Syrian people that the American sanctions and Caesar Act are the reason behind the misery and suffering of the Syrian people. How would you respond to that?
Dr. Lababidi: The misery of the Syrian people started in 1971, not in 2011. In 2011, the Syrian People said, “we cannot take it anymore.” The Syrian people said, “Enough is enough.” Way before the Caesar Act and the sanctions, Syrians suffered so much in the regime. In the last ten years, the country was destroyed, Syrian people were displaced, half of the Syrian population was displaced internally and externally. The economy was brought to total destruction by the systematic attack on the infrastructure. The depletion of assets to conduct a war against the Syrian people, that’s what brought misery to Syrians in the last 50 years, but especially in the last 10 years. The Caesar Act was enacted recently, way after Syria, as a country, as an infrastructure, was completely destroyed by the war machine of the Assad regime, the Iranian occupation forces, the Russian occupation forces, and the terrorist sectarian militias that were brought from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the revolutionary guards that brought from Iran for the sole reason of destroying Syria. The Caesar act is punishing the actors that were responsible, the personalities, the criminals that were responsible for the destruction of Syria. This is what the Caesar Act does. The Caesar Act is squeezing the neck of the regime so it cannot operate freely, it cannot govern the country that it destroyed. This actually has six points that the regime would do to end the sanctions on the regime figures and of course, these six points, if they were applied, the Syrian people would be free, the regime will end and a new day in Syria will start. No, I don’t think the Caesar Act and the sanctions destroyed the country and destroyed the economy. It was the act of the dictator, butcher of Syria, Bashar al-Assad that destroyed everything over ten years, brought two occupation forces to help him out with this, Iran and Russia, and here we are. The sanction will continue to squeeze the regime neck into submission and it’s only a matter of time before people realize, and they already did, whether they live under Assad regime control areas or in liberated areas, there will be no future for Syria with this regime in place. There will be no future for Syrians, regardless of where they live, with this regime in place.
The Observer: You are playing a visible role in uniting the Syrian American groups around one goal. What is this goal and how far have you gone on this road?
Dr. Lababidi: The Syrian American Council realized that for our work in DC, with the administration, with the congress, to be effective, to yield the results that we desire, everybody has to work together. We started on this work years ago and we realized that multiple organizations exist and that’s okay. But these multiple organizations need to work together very closely, need to coordinate the work, organize the work and push toward the common goal and common denominator for all Syrians, especially the Syrian-American community, in bringing democracy and freedom to Syria. We came a long way. There is very close cooperation now among Syrian American organizations in DC. There is an office with employees that many organizations use to advance their goals and work in DC. There are regular meetings among the heads of organizations, talking about topics related to the work in DC and advancing the goals of freedom and democracy in Syria. These organizations are working much more than before and all the organizations realized that this work collectively is producing much better results than every organization working on its own.
The Observer: You are also trying to join the forces with the Syrian communities in the diaspora, especially in Europe and Turkey. Have you made any progress in this regard?
Dr. Lababidi: Joining forces with other Syrian communities and organizations in Europe, in Turkey, across the world actually, was very important. We realized that the collective work of the Syrian-American community and the Syrian-American organization in D.C. and the United States is very important, but it will actually be amplified if we get Syrians around the world, and inside Syria, to work together towards achieving the goal. We made a lot of progress in this, there have been a lot of meetings and discussions with the organization and individuals. Very influential Syrians around the world are trying to coordinate the work to achieve the goal and to do it in a timely fashion so Syrians around the world can have a choice of going back to visit their country, to live in their country, and rebuild their country, which is very important. We achieved a lot of progress in this work and hopefully, the fruits of this collective work and coordination will be seen soon.
The Observer: Are you as a community and as the Syrian American Council in contact with the Syrian opposition? What do you try to achieve with them?
Dr. Lababidi: The Syrian American community and council have been in contact with all Syrian organizations and influential Syrians around the world. We stand the same distance from everybody and work with everybody whose goal is to bring freedom and democracy to our beloved country, Syria, and to free the Syrian people from a brutal criminal regime that has ruled Syria for over 50 years now. With that, yes, we do work with everybody including the official Syrian opposition, if that’s what this question meant. What we intend to achieve with them, is what we intend to achieve with all Syrian organizations around the world, for us all to work together toward the common denominator, which we see as number one, political stability in Syria, based on the UNSC resolution due to five four and other related resolutions. In that forming transition, a government with full authority without Assad prisons, having a general assembly convene in Damascus, Syria after the transition government in place to form a constitution and based on that constitution, have a free and fair election that Syrians can participate in and vote for their candidate of choice without fear of being punished if they don’t vote for the Assad family candidate. Number three is the security stability in the country, and that will never happen without the Iranian occupation forces and the Iranian-backed terrorist sectarian militias leaving the country immediately and having a national Syrian army in place, to secure the country and bring peace everywhere. That can be done with the work between Syrian officers who defected and Syrian officers who are still inside the country who did not participate in the killing of civilians. Number three would be the economic stability, and that we are working with business people all over the world who are Syrian, to be able to revive the Syrian economy, of course with the help of the international community but Syrians willing to invest in their country and willing to put a substantial amount of money, as they have shown in the last ten years, to bring economic stability to the country. Number four, the transition of justice. Without a transition of justice, there is no way that the country can move forward. This has to be done with the people who disappeared 40-50 years from now, have to be accounted for and the perpetrators have to be held accountable for their crimes. Then, the country can move forward and prosper. The fifth point is related to refugees, obviously, we want the voluntary, dignified and safe return of all refugees around the world, if they so desire. These are the five points we are working with everybody on including the former opposition. This is the common denominator for all Syrians. This is why Syrians sacrificed so much, and went out, in millions, on the streets of Syria almost 10 years ago now, and paid with their lives and blood to achieve these goals and their freedom hoping for a democratic system in the future in Syria where everybody, the rights of every Syrian are protected under the law and all Syrians are equal under the law.