Abed Ayoub, left, and Zaher Sahloul, activists for Syrians.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian-Americans Who Stood Up to Iran (When Obama Wouldn't)

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, has persuaded most Western elites that he is a moderate worthy of deference. Big-shot journalists respectfully interview him. Former senior U.S. officials dine with him. European foreign ministries accommodate his pious sensibilities. 

President Barack Obama and his top advisers are no exception. They too go out of their way not to offend Rouhani, particularly since he agreed to the nuclear deal in 2015. Last week at the U.N. General Assembly, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry did not call out Iran by name, as they did with Russia, for supporting the slaughter in Syria. And even though Iran's president has declined Obama's requests for a face-to-face meeting, the U.S. president had kind words for Iran in his big speech at the U.N. on Tuesday.

Two people who are not taken in by Rouhani's charms are Zaher Sahloul and Yahya Basha. They are Syrian-American medical doctors who have devoted themselves to pleading with diplomats and world leaders to stop the killing in the place of their birth. Sahloul traveled to Aleppo in June and July to treat some victims of the Syrian war.

On Tuesday last week, Sahloul and Basha were invited to a meeting in New York with Rouhani for U.S. Muslim leaders. It was the second meeting with Rouhani for the two doctors, and they decided to press Iran's president on his country's support for the man tormenting their fellow Syrians.  

Sahloul told me that when it was his turn to speak, he told Iran's president about a 5-year-old boy named Ahmed. Between June 27 and July 1, Sahloul performed surgeries on Ahmed, who suffered shrapnel wounds in his spinal cord and left lung after his family's home collapsed from a barrel bomb dropped by the Syrian air force. When Sahloul left Aleppo, Ahmed was alive, but on life support. The next day, the young boy's heart stopped and he died.

"I asked the president, as a Muslim, whether Hussein would be on the side of the people dropping the barrel bombs," Sahloul told me. Hussein is the grandson of the prophet Mohammed and is the third imam of the Shiite sect of Islam, which is practiced in Iran.

Sahloul said Rouhani heard him out and then responded that Iran has no choice but to fight against terrorists like the Islamic State.  

Later as the meeting with U.S. Muslim leaders was wrapping up, Basha tried to approach Rouhani in the hallway to press the Syria issue. Basha told me Rouhani just kept walking.

The moral and spiritual case these doctors made to Iran's president is undercut by Obama's policy decisions. After all, the day after Sahloul and Basha met with Rouhani, the U.S. approved licenses for Boeing and Airbus to sell planes to Iran Air. This is despite evidence the airline has helped supply the Syrian regime with military equipment and personnel for the war Obama says he is trying to end. On Sunday evening, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes is scheduled to address the annual meeting of the National Iranian American Council, which has lobbied since 2013 in Congress to burnish the image of Rouhani as a reformer who is fighting against his country's hardliners.

Sahloul understands Rouhani's appeal on a certain level. "He is an excellent public relations person for the Iranian regime," Sahloul told me. "He hugs everyone, he smiles, the language he uses is not controversial in Muslim circles." Many Syrian-Americans though see a menace behind that smile. Sahloul said when he first agreed to meet with Rouhani in 2014, others at his humanitarian organization protested. "Many of our board members say Rouhani is a war criminal and we should have no contact with him," he said.

But Sahloul sees it differently. He told me that it is now apparent in the final months of the Obama administration that the U.S. has failed to diminish Iran's support for Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. "Clearly our government, the U.S. government, can't influence the regime," he said. "So I meet with Iranian leaders and ask them directly." 

To say that Obama disappointed Sahloul in this respect is an understatement. "I think history will judge him as the president who had all the information and allowed a genocide in Syria," he said. 

Sahloul wasn't always this tough on him. In the summer of 2013, before Assad's forces dropped sarin gas bombs on a Damascus suburb, he met with Obama at the White House for an Iftar dinner. He delivered a letter to the U.S. president urging him to establish a no-fly zone in Syria to protect civilians. In his brief moment with Obama, the doctor made the case for more U.S. humanitarian intervention.

Obama listened respectfully to the Syrian-American and took the letter in his hand. "He told me he would get back to me," Sahloul said. "But he never did."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net