Election 2020

‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’: War-Weary Syrian Americans Want Resolution

In a swing state with a razor-thin margin in 2016, one tiny voting bloc could be key.

The al-Zoobi family spends time together at their home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on July 26, 2015. They fled Syria three years before.
The al-Zoobi family spends time together at their home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on July 26, 2015. They fled Syria three years before. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

President Donald Trump won Michigan in 2016 by about 11,000 votes. There are roughly 27,000 Syrian Americans in Michigan—but they’re torn over who to vote for and watching both campaigns carefully with an eye on foreign policy, making this slice of the American electorate crucially important.

For well over a century, Syrian Americans have been lured to Michigan, first drawn to Henry Ford’s Model-T plants and then a halt to federal immigration quotas that allowed Syrians to flee the wars of the 1960s. For these voters, the problem is vexing: Trump has done little to nothing to stop the carnage in a Syrian civil war that has claimed as many as 600,000 lives, yet a Joe Biden administration could promise more broken red lines and has hinted at accommodation with the Bashar al-Assad regime to rebuild the country.

“There is no Syrian I know that doesn’t have family that didn’t get killed by Assad, imprisoned by Assad, or disappeared by Assad,” said Ismael Basha, the head of Americans for a Free Syria, who fled his homeland for the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills in the 1980s fearing persecution from Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

Trump pulled U.S. troops out of Syria (except those needed to “take the oil”), while some voters perceive that Biden has been ambivalent about his willingness to stand up to Iran’s proxies in places like Syria.

“They are in between a rock and a hard place,” Basha said. “We’d like to see Biden more stern in his signals to Iran.”

Biden has been mostly mum on Syria in the digital stump speeches that have replaced his rallies due to the coronavirus pandemic. But he courted controversy last month by releasing a plan that called on the United States to mobilize other countries to aid in Assad’s reconstruction of the country. And Biden’s reliance on former Obama officials, including former Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken, has stoked fears in Syrian American circles that another Democratic White House could lead to more wavering on Syria. The Obama administration said in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “red line” that would draw a U.S. response; when Damascus gassed civilians, Obama dithered and later authorized a botched CIA training program for Syrian rebels that was eventually canceled by Trump. 

“It’s obvious that there are various opinions in the Biden camp about how to resolve Syria,” said Jomana Qaddour, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an advisor to the Syrian American support group for Biden. “I don’t think one position is going to win out before Biden takes over.”

Syrian Americans are one part of a patchwork of Arab diaspora groups in Michigan that are split between the foreign-policy impulses of hard and soft power. The state’s Arab American community more than doubled between 1980 and 2000, and elections two years ago that saw Democrats retake the U.S. House of Representatives brought Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib as the first-ever Palestinian American woman in Congress, giving Michigan an ardent Trump critic wary of U.S. military overreach on the Democrat’s left wing.

Yet while the majority of American voters have looked at U.S. engagement in Syria with unease, Assad’s brutal reign and the recent unraveling in Lebanon—where Iran-backed Hezbollah wields a heavy hand—still leave the Syrian diaspora wanting to see the United States engage in the Middle East.

“The Syrian-American community absolutely opposes willy-nilly regime change and reckless adventures, but we do feel that there’s a role for the U.S. military and diplomatically to uphold human rights,” said Wael Alzayat, a former State Department official during the Obama administration and now CEO of Emgage Action, a nonprofit focused on encouraging Muslim voter turnout. “We have strong interests in curbing the ability of authoritarians to get away with stuff.”

For many Syrian Americans, Trump’s perceived challenges to U.S. democratic norms and short-term travel ban against seven majority Muslim countries, including Syria, have made him a political pariah. But in this decisive state, the margin for error is slim, and progressives are still tepid in their enthusiasm for Biden. On the heels of her primary victory last month, Tlaib pledged to help Biden turn out voters in Detroit—but she stopped short of endorsing him. 

In an election so far dominated by a pandemic, economic collapse, Supreme Court picks, and Trump’s taxes, some key voters are still up for grabs—depending on who can end the bloodshed in Syria.

“Between now and Election Day, Trump can make a statement about Syria, and he can sweep people in one direction, and Biden can make a statement and sweep them in another,” said Basha, the head of Americans for a Free Syria. “Their antennas are up, and they are watching.”

Correction, Sept. 29, 2020: Rashida Tlaib was the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Tlaib was the first Palestinian American elected to Congress. She is from Detroit, not Dearborn. 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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