The State Department approved a visa for a new Syrian diplomat sent to Washington by the Assad regime several weeks ago and then revoked it today—but not before the diplomat had boarded his plane to Washington. He is being deported now in what lawmakers and opposition figures see as the latest debacle in the Obama administration’s handling of the Syria crisis.
“I cannot comment on an individual visa case beyond confirming that Ali Daghman’s visa has been revoked,” a State Department official told The Daily Beast Tuesday, referring to the incoming Syrian diplomat. “As a matter of policy and given the Syrian regime’s continuing assault on its own people, we have taken steps to further restrict entry of even the few remaining Syrian officials staffing the Embassy in Washington.”
Sources told The Daily Beast that Daghman’s visa was not revoked until after Daghman had already departed for D.C. and after Congressional offices and Syria opposition groups protested to the State Department, urging them not to let a regime loyalist diplomat into the country. The State Department was also considering approving the visas for two more diplomats being sent to Washington by the regime, but those visa applications have not been granted or denied and sit in bureaucratic limbo, these sources said.
As for Daghman, he made it all the way to Dulles International Airport, where he still sits in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol, awaiting deportation back to Syria, according to two sources close to the issue. CBP spokesman Robert Hunt told The Daily Beast he could not comment on the status of any individual traveler due to privacy laws.
“This is a prime example of our dysfunctional Syria policy,” said one senior staffer for a Senate Republican, who added that there was outrage on Capitol Hill that the State Department granted Daghman a visa in the first place and confusion over why they finally decided to revoke it. “We're supposedly arming the opposition to overthrow Assad yet we are granting visas to regime loyalists to come to Washington? This makes the U.S. look at best incompetent and at worst incoherent.”
For leaders of the Syrian opposition, the State Department behavior is only the latest in a long string of decisions that send the wrong message to Assad— namely that the U.S. wants to keep working with his government. President Obama called on Assad to step down almost two years ago, but still treats his government with diplomatic courtesies, which gives Assad undeserved legitimacy, they say.
“Regardless of the reason why they gave the new diplomat a visa, it sends a message to Assad that the U.S. is not serious when they say the Assad regime is no longer legitimate.”
“Regardless of the reason why they gave the new diplomat a visa, it sends a message to Assad that the U.S. is not serious when they say the Assad regime is no longer legitimate,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian American Task Force, an NGO that works closely with the Syrian opposition. “It says there is still a relationship. That is the most destructive thing.”
The Syrian Embassy in Washington D.C. has been a source of controversy ever since the Syrian revolution began over two years ago. Technically, the embassy is run by Ambassador Imad Moustapha, but he absconded secretly to Beijing in early 2012, as the FBI was investigating the embassy’s role in spying on Syrian Americans on behalf of the regime in order to intimidate and harass their family members back in Syria.
"Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa is involved in activities that vary between espionage, threatening Syrian dissidents, and lobbying and organizing rallies in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, in 2011.
Moustafa is also suspected of funneling money from wealthy Syrians and Syrian Americans in the U.S. to the regime through China.
There are only four Syrian diplomats left in the embassy and exactly what they do and where their loyalties lie is unclear. Under normal circumstances, they would be replaced when their stints in Washington are up. But given the potential for mischief and the public relations victory this could mean for the Syrian government, the State Department’s actions are puzzling those who oppose the regime.
“Assad reads every action by the State Department as a message for him. For him, it’s not about who are these guys, he is reading this as they are still recognizing him and his regime,” said Moustafa. “The regime will use this to tell the world, ‘While you are fighting us, the U.S. is dealing with us.’”
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Josh Rogin is senior correspondent for national security and politics for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He previously worked at Foreign Policy magazine, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week magazine, and Japan’s leading daily newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.