The Gross Misconduct of Radwan Ziadeh’s Asylum Denial

U.S. immigration officials have said the Syrian dissident was “engaged in terrorist activity.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 06:  Radwan Ziadeh, founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria, points to a map of Syrian capital Damascus as he speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club September 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. Ziadeh spoke on "Evidence for Syrian Chemical Massacre."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 06: Radwan Ziadeh, founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria, points to a map of Syrian capital Damascus as he speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club September 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. Ziadeh spoke on "Evidence for Syrian Chemical Massacre." (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Forty-one-year-old Radwan Ziadeh’s résumé is enough to make a Washington overachiever blush. He has published more than 20 books. He founded and directed institutions including the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies and helped establish the Syria Relief Network, the largest coalition of Syrian humanitarian groups. He has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, the Harvard Kennedy School, and New York University; he has chaired commissions, edited journals, and testified before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. Ziadeh was a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has lectured all over the world and serves on numerous boards. He has degrees in diplomacy and human rights from Georgetown and American University. Oh, and he’s a trained dentist to boot.

Ziadeh, who was called “not so much a person as an institution” in the Washington Post, is the most prominent, respected, and trusted Syrian dissident in the Washington, D.C., area, where he has lived for a decade with his wife and is raising three children, all born in the United States. Working closely with policymakers, military officers, and diplomats, Ziadeh has provided advice, counsel, and practical efforts to advance America’s Syria policy.

On June 2, however, Radwan Ziadeh was told by the Arlington Asylum Office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that he had “engaged in terrorist activity” and that it intended to deny his application for asylum. If that decision stands, Ziadeh will have to leave the United States early next year and will likely have to return to Syria, where he faces possible execution as a prominent critic of President Bashar al-Assad. This was an astonishing, almost Kafkaesque decision, one that advocates of human rights and opponents of terrorism cannot allow to stand. The accusation that Ziadeh had supported terrorism rested on peace-building activities he undertook in close consultation with American officials and with the financial support of the Canadian government.

A denial of Ziadeh’s asylum claim — based on the absurd finding that he has engaged in terrorism — makes so little sense that it would be comforting to expect that the Arlington Asylum Office’s preliminary decision, to which Ziadeh’s pro bono attorneys have filed an objection, will be abandoned. But that commonsense outcome is hardly assured. It thus falls to Ziadeh’s many friends and colleagues, to proponents of conflict resolution and peace-building work, and to principled members of Congress to undo this miscarriage of justice.

I first got to know Ziadeh in the spring of 2011, as the Syrian conflict was escalating. I was serving in the State Department and working to determine what the U.N. Human Rights Council might do to aid resolution of the crisis and restoration of rights protections. Ziadeh was an invaluable advisor, lending firsthand knowledge of the Assad regime’s crimes and traveling to Geneva to put a human face to the conflict. His involvement helped the U.S. government establish an Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which continues to document and collect evidence of rights abuses perpetrated by Assad’s government and other parties.

Last month, Ziadeh received a letter spelling out the rationale for the denial of his asylum claim. The narrative recalls Ziadeh’s cooperation with the State Department dating back to 2000 when he first began to contribute to the United States’ annual human rights reports. It recounts the almost daily interrogations he endured at the hands of the Syrian government for three years beginning in 2001. It recounts how Ziadeh was fired from his job as a dentist for his political activities, and then was forcibly conscripted into the Syrian military, and monitored by the Syrian government during international travels. It also describes him meeting “frequently with U.S. government national security officials, including members of the Department of Defense” and contributing to the State Department’s U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative. When Ziadeh finally fled Syria for good in 2007 for fear of arrest, the U.S. Agency for International Development helped book his ticket to safety. Syria then blocked his family from traveling in 2011, and his brother was held captive and tortured for seven months while being interrogated about Ziadeh’s activities. The Arlington Asylum Office’s Notice of Intent to Deny, or NOID, concludes that “the harm you suffered — frequent, long and intense interrogations over a period of multiple years, and the psychological impact of these interrogations — is harm serious enough to rise to the level of persecution.” The letter concludes that Ziadeh is a bona fide refugee and has a well-founded fear that the persecution he endured will resume if he is returned to Assad’s Syria.

All this, right up to page nine of the government’s 12-page letter, seems right on target. Ziadeh’s testimony on all these matters was, the letter concluded, “detailed, consistent, and plausible. Therefore, it is found credible.” The NOID then takes a dumbfounding turn, going on to say that “although you have established that you are a refugee, you are subject to a mandatory bar to a grant of asylum as someone who has engaged in terrorist activity.”

For those who know and have worked with Ziadeh, the accusation is preposterous. A close reading of the letter reveals that this so-called “terrorist activity” entailed paying for the travel expenses for representatives of two Syrian opposition groups to attend workshops on peace building and post-conflict transition as part of a process instigated by the U.S. ambassador to Syria and other officials and funded by a Canadian development agency. The very purpose of the exercise was to engage armed groups and others in Syria in developing plans to respect rights, protect civilians, and uphold democratic rule. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ claim that Ziadeh engaged in terrorism rests on the absurd notion that convening Syrian opposition leaders — at the behest of the U.S. government — amounts to terrorism.

According to the letter, Ziadeh’s organization, the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, founded an entity called the Syrian Expert House, which undertook post-conflict planning “per the Department of State’s request” for the purpose of “building a transition for Syria post-conflict.” The Expert House included more than 300 Syrian opposition leaders, scholars, attorneys, former politicians, and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was funded by the International Development Research Centre, an organization sponsored by the Canadian government. In short, the United States and its allies turned to Ziadeh to provide pivotal assistance in facilitating a peaceful, rights-respecting transition in Syria — and funded his efforts to do so.

The Syrian Expert House encompassed six working groups, one of which was charged with “security sector reform.” The working groups met in person and produced the Syria Transition Roadmap, a 238-page game plan for transition. The security working group met twice, in November 2012 and May 2013 in Istanbul. As the letter recounts, the meetings were devoted to lectures about “the role of the security apparatus in a democracy, specifically how it should be under the power of the parliament.” The security working group “also developed a code of ethics that required all members [to] respect international human rights law and the Geneva Conventions.” Ziadeh told the Arlington Asylum Office that 30-40 identified FSA members attended the working group’s meetings and that the attendees were chosen based on recommendations from a senior FSA official and the State Department. Ziadeh testified in his asylum interview that each Syrian Expert House participant, according to the letter, “was investigated to confirm that they were not accused of spreading sectarian violence or had engaged in violence.” Those found to have encouraged or committed violence were excluded from the convenings.

In addition to Syrian nationals, the Expert House’s conferences and workshops were attended by reputable, U.S. government-approved participants. They included representatives of the National Democratic Institute and of the International Republican Institute, U.S. government officials, and Western ambassadors. Ziadeh’s Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies paid for the flights, accommodations, meals, and travel expenses for Syrian participants, with those costs documented with receipts submitted to the respected Canadian-funded sponsor, the International Development Research Centre.

But despite this extensive vetting, and despite the U.S. government’s prior approval, the Arlington Asylum Office now claims that the FSA and another participant in the security sector working group, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB), are “undesignated terrorist organizations” under U.S. immigration law. By using Canadian government funds to pay for the FSA and SMB members’ travel to Istanbul, “including breakfast, lunch and dinner for four days,” and providing them the chance to confer with other opposition members and foreign officials, “the FSA and SMB received benefits” — and hence, according to this logic, Ziadeh’s actions constitute “material support” for terrorism, a term of art in both immigration and criminal law that has ballooned in the decade and a half since the 9/11 attacks to include even attempts to get militant groups to renounce violence (which the FSA was called upon to do under the transition plan).

To bolster its case, the NOID cites the U.S. Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the FSA comprises “lightly armed, dissident military personnel and officers who have defected and are targeting government security forces in armed attacks.” It cites Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism to report that although 92.4 percent of the FSA’s attacks have targeted the Assad regime, 5.3 percent were “random or indiscriminate, meaning that they impacted civilians.” It also finds that the SMB is affiliated with a group, known as the “Shields,” that has engaged militarily in the Syrian conflict, playing “a significant role in battles against regime forces.” The letter notes that “a group meets the definition of an undesignated terrorist organization … when it engages in terrorist activity or has a subgroup that engages in terrorist activity.”

The NOID concludes that both the FSA and SMB have “used weapons with the intent to endanger the safety of Syrian government officials” and that accordingly both “have engaged in terrorist activity” sufficient to meet the definition of an undesignated organization at the time. The letter says Ziadeh was aware that the groups were engaged in armed combat against the Syrian government. “You have therefore ‘engaged in terrorist activity,’” it states. The letter closes by detailing the exceptions to the material support doctrine, finding none of them applicable to Ziadeh’s case.

The flawed reasoning contained in the Arlington Asylum Office’s determination would be almost laughable were the potential consequences not so grave. The government’s conclusion fails to take account of at least five major points:

First, Ziadeh created the Syrian Expert House at the U.S. government’s request and held the meetings in question with the support of the Canadian government and the involvement of U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. The United States was consulted specifically on who from the FSA would participate. In fact, given the nature of Washington’s request to Ziadeh — to formulate a transition plan with the buy-in of key players — he could not have fulfilled the mandate had these parties not been included.

Second, the United States has for years supported and collaborated with the FSA and consulted with the SMB. In 2012, the U.S. government waived Office of Foreign Asset Control regulations in order to enable U.S. groups to fund the FSA. In 2013, the United States first began providing food and medical supplies to the FSA. While America and its allies have struggled to ensure that their aid to Syria does not fall into the wrong hands, the years of U.S. support for the FSA make faulting Ziadeh for including the group at his conferences nonsensical. The SMB might seem a trickier case. But the New York Times has reported that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, has confirmed that the SMB has no connection to other Muslim Brotherhood chapters and that former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton both met with SMB representatives while in office. “The U.S. administration,” Ford wrote in an email to the Times, “myself included, regularly spoke with members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who were themselves members of Syrian opposition coalitions and delegations.” Ford further indicates that neither the FSA nor the SMB is a terrorist organization.

Third, the U.S. government does not dispute Ziadeh’s account of the vetting of individual representatives of the FSA and SMB to his conferences to ensure that they personally had not engaged in sectarian violence.

Fourth, the government does not dispute that the purpose of Ziadeh’s conferences was to develop a road map that would lead the parties to the Syrian conflict away from militarism and uncontrolled conflict and toward democracy, respect for human rights and international law, and civilian primacy over the military — all goals for Syria that the United States has been pushing.

Fifth, when your work is to mediate a civil war, it is necessary to engage with parties that have taken up arms. Had Ziadeh excluded pivotal groups from his negotiation and planning process on the basis that they were fighting against Assad, the entire transition-planning exercise would have been rendered useless.

If this unjust decision is not reversed on appeal, the consequences will be dire — not just for Ziadeh, but for the whole field of peace building and conflict resolution. For Ziadeh, a return to Syria will mean almost certain death (unless he can somehow get to another safe country that would grant him asylum). For this to happen as a consequence of such a stunningly flawed asylum determination would render the United States an accessory to his likely murder at the hands of the Assad regime. For Syria’s human rights defenders, dissidents, and all those who have trusted the United States to help those fighting against Assad’s brutality, the ejection of Ziadeh will stand as a profoundly personal and cruel betrayal. It will become an emblem of perceived American indifference. For all those who cooperate with the U.S. government in good faith, the double-crossing of Ziadeh will sound a cacophonous cautionary note anytime they are asked to take on an assignment that involves the ambiguities of engaging with armed conflict. Beyond that, Americans who engage in peace building with armed parties or so-called “Track II” diplomacy — meeting with officials from states that sponsor terrorism — now have reason to worry that even the best-intended conciliation efforts could be grossly misconstrued.

The most charitable interpretation of the United States’ preliminary denial of Ziadeh’s application for asylum is that the officers who evaluated it were simply confused. Perhaps they mechanically applied what they thought was the law without considering the extreme mitigating factors in this case. No system is perfect, and anyone is entitled to make a mistake. But given everything Radwan Ziadeh has done for U.S. foreign policy and for the cause of human rights in Syria, we owe it to him and to our own reputation to set this right immediately.

Photo credit: ALEX WONG/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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