George Sabra, an important figure in the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, spoke about the need for American aid in the current conflict in Syria at an event Sunday at Rice University.
Sabra is the current president of the Syrian National Council, one of the largest Syrian opposition groups in exile, and ex-president of the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group that more than 20 countries have recognized as the legitimate government of Syria. Before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Sabra was an active dissident in Syria who spent eight years jailed by the Assad regime.
Sabra led a presentation and discussion in which he described the current civil war in Syria and the path to establishing a democratic government. The war has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced millions since its inception during the Arab Spring of 2011. According to Sabra, international aid is key to making progress in the conflict.
“To solve the problem [of Syria] we are in need of a regional and international agreement between the powers,” Sabra said. “We are in need [of rebuilding] the Syrian nationality, which gets all the components of the Syrians inside: all religions, all nations, on the basis of independent decision.”
Sabra also discussed the complicated internal situation in Syria, characterized by fighting among the regime, pro-democracy rebel groups led by the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish rebels and fundamentalist forces such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The rise of extremist groups results from the inability of moderate rebels to overthrow Assad, according to Sabra; to reduce the appeal of ISIS in Syria, Sabra said the priority of the U.S. government should be to remove Assad from power.
“People think of ISIS as a reason [for Syrian problems] instead of a result,” Sabra said. “ISIS is a result; terrorism is a result.”
According to Sabra, the Syrian opposition faces several external obstacles: Russian and Iranian policy, which support the Assad regime, and American policy, which he says does not go far enough in supporting Syrian rebels. While he opposed American military incursion, Sabra called on the United States to supply more weapons and funding to the rebels. Despite the challenges faced by the Syrian opposition, Sabra said he would not abandon the anti-Assad cause.
“I can’t give up except in one case: if my country becomes an independent state with a constitution … multiple parties, free press,” Sabra said. “I want my country to change into a democracy. And thousands, tens of thousands of the Syrian people lost their lives to buy this prize: democracy.”
The Houston chapter of the Syrian American Council organized Sabra’s appearance at Rice in conjunction with the World Affairs Council of Houston as part of its efforts to raise awareness about current events in Syria, according to chapter president and event moderator Shiyam Galyon.
“Two of our main goals [are] to promote human rights and democracy in Syria, and to raise awareness on Syria,” Galyon said. “We were able to bring a major Syrian pro-democracy figure and make him accessible to the public … [and] to reach a wide audience of Syrian, non-Syrian, expert and newcomer.”
Galyon said the SAC will continue with efforts to inform the public about Syrian issues and to work with local politicians on legislation related to Syria. In particular, Galyon mentioned a bill that has spent a year under consideration by Congress supporting establishment of a war crimes tribunal for Syria.
Martel freshman Danna Ghafir, a member of SAC Houston who helped with the promotion and setup of the event, said she thought Sabra’s talk succeeded in attracting a wide variety of listeners.
“I was particularly pleased to see a diverse audience appear to hear George Sabra speak, including Syrian and non-Syrian Americans of all age levels,” Ghafir said. “Some audience members had just been passing by when they decided to buy a ticket.”
From Ghafir’s perspective, the event was also a success in raising awareness of the current problems in Syria.
“The conversation with George Sabra was no doubt educational and eye-opening,” Ghafir said. “Many Rice students told me they were not aware of the gross extent of Syrian regime war crimes. My friends left the event shocked by the statistics that Sabra presented and inspired by his passion.”
For his part, Sabra said it was impossible to convey the full severity of the situation in Syria.
“I want you to know that all numbers which you have heard and all pictures which you have seen are less than fact about the Syrian catastrophe,” Sabra said. “And when the fact will clearly appear in front of the world, the world will be horrified and humanity will be ashamed.”