New York Times
By Somini Sengupta
June 23, 2017
A prominent Syrian dissident has been told he cannot get political asylum in the United States because he organized a conference with Syrian opposition groups — even though the American government has supported members of those same groups in the Syrian civil war.
The case of the dissident, Radwan Ziadeh, 41, who lives in a suburb of Washington, reveals a stark gap between American immigration law and foreign policy.
Ever since counterterrorism provisions were expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States government has considered many armed opposition groups around the world, including some that it backs diplomatically or financially, to be “undesignated terrorist organizations.” Anyone who provides “material support” to those groups can be disqualified from receiving immigration papers.
Mr. Ziadeh is a prominent political opponent of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has received fellowships at Harvard, Georgetown and the United States Institute of Peace, which is partly funded by Congress. He has testified in Congress, written books and served briefly as a spokesman for the Syrian opposition umbrella group that the American government supported.
But in early June, Mr. Ziadeh was informed that he would be denied political asylum in the United States. In a 12-page letter laying out the government’s “intent to deny” his asylum claim, Citizenship and Immigration Services explained that he had provided “material support” to Syrian groups that the government considered undesignated terrorist organizations.
Mr. Ziadeh said he was shocked. He and his wife, Susan Aljlelatie, have lived in the United States for 10 years on a series of temporary permits, the latest of which expires next spring. Their children were born here.
“Right now, I can’t even plan for the future. What will happen?” he said. “I have three American kids. I love, actually, the U.S. I visited all 50 states, even U.S. territories. I visited all the presidential libraries.”
Going back to Syria is not an option. The government there has a warrant out for his arrest; the Islamic State has him on a list of Syrians it wants dead.
At issue, specifically, is that Mr. Ziadeh organized a series of conferences from November 2012 to May 2013 to discuss a democratic transition in Syria.
Among those invited to the workshops, held in Istanbul, were self-described commanders in a loose confederation of rebel groups called the Free Syrian Army, as well as political leaders affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Both groups are well known to the American government. For years, the Central Intelligence Agency and its counterparts in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries have provided some Free Syrian Army factions with salaries, arms and other supplies. The State Department has also provided aid.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s members also had key roles in the Syrian National Council, the political umbrella group that the United States supported.
Robert S. Ford, a former American ambassador to Syria, said in an email that the American government did not consider either of the groups that Mr. Ziadeh invited to the workshops to be a terrorist organization.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Ford added, has no “administrative connection” to Muslim Brotherhood factions in other countries. (President Trump’s advisers have debated but not decided whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.)
Moreover, Mr. Ford said, both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, as secretaries of state, met with opposition delegations that included Brotherhood members.
“The U.S. administration, myself included, regularly spoke with members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who were themselves members of Syrian opposition coalitions and delegations,” he wrote.
In its letter to Mr. Ziadeh, Citizenship and Immigration Services said he had provided “material support” to members of the groups when his organization, the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, paid for their airfare and hotel bills in Istanbul, using money from the Canadian government.
“As both the FSA and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood used weapons with the intent to endanger the safety of Syrian government officials, both groups have engaged in terrorist activity such that they met the definition of an undesignated terrorist organization (Tier III) at the time you provided material support,” the letter states.
“You have therefore ‘engaged in terrorist activity,’” it went on to say.
Mr. Ziadeh is appealing the government’s decision.
His lawyer, Steven H. Schulman, said that inviting members of opposition groups to a conference to discuss the political future of Syria should not be seen as promoting the groups’ agendas or providing them with material support.
“I find it offensive, because no reasonable person would sit down and say Radwan Ziadeh is a terrorist,” Mr. Schulman said. “There are real terrorists out there. We all know that. Somehow, we are unable to distinguish between people who actually engage in terrorist activity and who do not engage in terrorist activity.”
The label “undesignated terrorist organization” has been in place since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many organizations that have engaged in violence, whether or not the United States supported them, have fallen under that term, said Anwen Hughes, a lawyer who specializes in asylum cases at Human Rights First, an advocacy group.
Providing “material support” to those groups can mean anything from fighting alongside them to paying them ransom. In 2008, an Iraqi man who worked as an interpreter for American forces in Iraq was denied a green card because he had belonged to a Kurdish group seeking to oust Saddam Hussein.
Ms. Hughes said one of her former clients had been denied asylum because he paid a ransom to an armed group in order to release a kidnapped family member. “It’s a fairly widespread problem that’s not limited to Syrians,” she said.
Eric Schwartz, a former Obama administration official and now the president of Refugees International, called the provision in immigration law “a product of the post 9/11 environment” — one that government officials had subsequently recognized was so broad that it caught all kinds of people in its net. “You had legislation that broadly expanded the definition of terrorist activity, captured people who could have been coerced into terrorist activity and created this Tier III catchall category,” he said.
Mary A. Cabrera, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency did not keep a set list of undesignated terrorist organizations, but made case-by-case determinations. Ms. Cabrera said she could not comment on an individual case.
Mr. Ziadeh chronicled his experience in an affidavit as part of his original asylum application. He said in the affidavit that he had been repeatedly called in for interrogation by the secret police in Syria. He edited a political magazine that was shut down by the government, founded the Damascus Center for Human Rights, and visited the United States in 2006 at the invitation of the State Department’s international visitor program.
He returned to Syria only to be summoned for interrogation by the authorities and then banned from traveling abroad. In 2007, on the pretext of getting medicine for his sick father, he obtained permission to go to neighboring Jordan for a day and secretly procured a visa from the American Embassy in Damascus. As soon as he reached Jordan, he and his wife boarded a flight to the United States.
The next year, the Syrian government issued a warrant for his arrest and barred his mother and siblings from leaving the country. When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, he received a frightening email telling him to be “careful” about his mother, still inside Syria.
Later that year, his brother, who was not politically active, was arrested; Mr. Ziadeh believes it was payback for his activism. His cousin was killed in what he called a massacre in the family’s hometown, Daraya. His mother and siblings slipped out of the country as soon as they could. They are scattered across Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Ziadeh and his lawyer said he had been interviewed by immigration officers four times.
The immigration agency said it found that Mr. Ziadeh had faced persecution because of his political beliefs, which would make him eligible for political asylum. “Your testimony was detailed, consistent and plausible,” it said in a June 2 letter. “Therefore, it is found credible.”
But the letter explains that his support for the two groups is grounds for denying his asylum claim.
Mr. Ziadeh contends that many Syrians will see a bigger political message in the rejection.
“It gives you a sense how much the U.S. government abandoned the Syrians,” he said.
Follow Somini Sengupta on Twitter @SominiSengupta.
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