The Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations talks about the worldwide implications of the Syrian refugee crisis.
CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush
Tavis: We continue now in our conversation about Middle East policy and shift our focus to the efforts here in the U.S. to help the multitudes of refugees fleeing violence in Syria. Pleased to welcome Hussam Ayloush back to this program. He is Executive Director of the Greater L.A. chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and National Chair of the Syrian-American Council.
Both groups have been heavily involved in lobbying the White House and Congress advocating an increase in the number of Syrians allowed into the U.S. as refugees. Mr. Ayloush, good to have you back on this program.
Hussam Ayloush: It’s always my pleasure. Thank you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking directly what specifically you all have been lobbying the White House and Congress for. What are you asking for?
Ayloush: Well, we’re trying to resolve the issue from its root causes. We’re realizing that, according to the U.N., the Syrian crisis is the worst disaster in our modern times since World War II. So we’re not dealing with just a matter of 100,000 or 200,000 refugees. There’s, obviously, a need to resolve the issue from its root causes, so there are short-term solutions and, obviously, long-term solutions that are needed.
Tavis: What are the short-term solutions?
Ayloush: The short-term is to save lives. You know, we have hundreds of thousands of refugees taking to the sea, thousands of them drowning, and we need to save those refugees. We need to talk with our allies in Europe to make sure that we can absorb as many as we can save as possible. At least maybe 100,000, we can easily absorb in our country.
We’re a large country, very welcoming to immigrants. Hundreds of thousands are going to Europe. So first of all, we’re trying to bring in at least 100,000 into the U.S., also increase the U.S. financial assistance that we provide to various refugee centers around the world and agencies.
So we would like to increase, and we’ve been very generous as a country. We’ve spent over $4 billion to help Syrian refugees. We’re hoping we can increase that, so we’re lobbying our president and Congress to increase that aid.
But the reality is what’s happening in Syria is not a result of some natural disaster that happened and left. It’s not a tornado, it’s not an earthquake. It’s an ongoing problem that the root cause of it is the Assad regime. Syrians are not leaving their country because they’re looking for a better job or food.
They’re leaving their country because they’re trying to escape barrel bombs, they’re trying to escape chemical weapons thrown at them by the Assad regime. So the long-term solution because, obviously, we cannot take 10 million refugees, there are 20 million people in Syria and we cannot absorb all of them, obviously.
So the long-term solution and what we have been lobbying for is for our country to work with other allies, Turkey, France, the U.K. and other countries, to establish and set up no-fly zones where civilians will be protected from the Assad air force which has been throwing the barrel bombs as well as the chemical weapons.
Tavis: I suspect when the history is written about the Obama administration’s foreign policy, one of the issue areas that will be up for greatest debate is how he handled or mishandled his moment to do something about Assad and the Syrian regime when he drew that red line in the sand and dared Mr. Assad to cross it.
Assad didn’t just cross it. He jumped over it, and we all know how that story ended. They said they were going to do one thing. It turned into something else and ultimately nothing was done. Assad is still there.
I just wanted to go back to that quick history, as if you don’t know this already, just to remind the audience of how this policy, you know, got so convoluted. My question, having said that, is whether or not President Obama, the Obama administration, missed a moment to have averted this crisis a couple of years ago.
Ayloush: There’s no debate. What we’re dealing with today, whether it’s the tragedy of the refugees, the drowning, the death, or actually the growth and the growing threat of groups like ISIS and the whole chaos and instability in the region, is a result of miscalculations and bad policy from the part of the world, including us, the U.S., the Obama administration specifically.
We are the super power of the world. We set the tone for the world. We are–you know, with power comes responsibility. We have to play and we should have played a moral role. I mean, it’s never too late.
Tavis: When you say should have played a role, I want to be specific here. Does that mean that Assad should have been gotten rid of then and, if so, how would that have been done? Because we couldn’t do that by ourselves.
Ayloush: Sure. Way before ISIS and other extremist groups showed into Syria, we could have supported the moderate political opposition in Syria with the rebels that we’re fighting, initially keeping in mind the Syrian revolution for democracy started as a peaceful resolution. It’s just the heavy-handed approach of the Assad regime that pushed it to becoming more militant.
We could have supported the political opposition groups with the support of our allies in the region, and there are many who stand by the Syrian people. And this could have helped at least establish some democracy in Syria and prevented the groups like ISIS from finding ground inside of Syria.
Tavis: If a leader like Mr. Assad, as we are told, was willing to use chemical warfare on his own people, this obviously could have been predicted, what we’re experiencing right now. If you’re going to do that, this easily could have been predicted.
Ayloush: Absolutely. We know for a fact that he does not have the support that will allow him to continue to engage in such practices. His advantage now is that he is the only force in the area, in Syria, that has the air force, that has access to air force.
So what he misses, what he lacks in number of soldiers, number of supporters, areas that he controls now makes up through the air force. And that is something that at least we could have provided the rebels and the Syrian people with abilities to defend themselves from air force attacks.
Tavis: Let me circle back to what you all are asking for, demanding now, regarding this specific crisis. So as I understand it, we allow about 70,000 refugees in our country a year…
Ayloush: Usually, yes.
Tavis: Secretary of State John Kerry has said he would support raising that number of 70,000 up to 100,000. Is that sufficient and how would that help us help the refugees immediately in this current crisis if we went up by 30,000 people?
Ayloush: Sure. I mean, first of all, probably the number would have to be increased more than 100,000 because not all refugees—most refugees are not Syrian. You know, out of the 70,000 last year, probably only 1,500 of them were Syrians.
So we’ll probably have to increase the number to allow maybe for about 100,000. These are people who are in the most dire of need of support. These are people who have lost their homes, their loved ones. These are people who are in need of immediate help.
Tavis: You’re suggesting–so I’m clear, Hussam–that we should bring in, we should allow in, 100,000 refugees right now.
Ayloush: Exactly. And that would barely scratch the surface.
Tavis: But you understand, obviously, that would be more than the total number of refugees we let in, period, in any given year.
Ayloush: And there has been history where we did that. I mean, in the 80s, we did this with Russians fleeing their country. We’ve done that, you know, after the Vietnam War. We’ve done that…
Tavis: There’s precedent for it, yeah.
Ayloush: There is precedent. And, of course, what we’re dealing with is unique. Since World War II, we haven’t seen 10 million, 11 million people, become refugees or internally displaced. This is really a serious problem that requires serious solutions.
Tavis: Since there’s precedent for it, is it fair to say then that there are “politics” that are getting in the way of letting 100,000 Syrians into our country?
Ayloush: Sure. You know, politics, one, there’s an anti-immigrant sentiment for some. There are others who feel that this is not our responsibility. For others, it’s racism. You know, these are, for the most part, deemed as Arab, Muslim, Brown people, although Syria is a very diverse country, but that’s how they’re deemed. And some people are raising Islamophobic, anti-Muslim comments.
You know, how do we know these are not terrorist? How do we know these are not ISIS people? You know, these are people fleeing ISIS and Assad regime. These are people-–they’re normal lives, professionals, doctors, engineers, housewives. No one wants to leave their home. And, of course, we do have a moral responsibility as the largest super power nation in the world.
Tavis: The pictures—Lord, the pictures of those drowning babies—how did that photograph change, impact, the conversation about this crisis?
Ayloush: It truly brought it to attention. You know, when I watched that image, I’m a father with five kids. I can’t imagine how the father felt. Excuse me. It certainly brought it to attention. Anyone with a horror can watch little Aylan, three-year-old, feeling helpless.
And I can tell you this is how the Syrian people feel today. I had the chance to visit Syria, visiting refugee camps two years ago where it’s only mainly women and children because most of the men are either killed or in prison for defending their villages.
And all I could see, men who are handicapped, losing limbs, who have lost limbs, women, children, asking is there a war that cares–I swear, people are asking, “Do people know we’re suffering? Do people know that all we’re asking for…”
You know, a mother and a father were asking me–a father in a wheelchair said, “All I need, my son has bronchitis, a recurring cough. All I need is a cough medicine I can give my son. I can’t watch my son suffer. Do the people of the world know what is happening?”
And I think we do know. We do feel, but an image like the image of Aylan reminds us at the end of the day that what we’re dealing with, you know, it’s not fighting people. It’s not something on a different planet.
These are real people with real parents, real lives, real children, and I always remind myself. I put myself in other peoples’ shoes and what would I expect others to do. And the hope is that we as Americans, we’re probably some of the most blessed people in the world…
Tavis: No doubt about it.
Ayloush: With resources and jobs and money and health, security, something that a lot of people around the world don’t have. We can share some of that. Again, to welcome some of these people with the dire needs so they don’t drown in the oceans and the seas.
But also more importantly, find the solution that will help prevent people from having to leave. The key is we don’t want people to leave. People are best treated when they stay at home with their dignity and their safety, and that’s probably what we need to do.
Tavis: The challenge for us as Americans, I think, is always we are a beautiful people, we are a caring people, we are a sympathetic people. But sympathy and empathy, as you know, are two different things.
Tavis: Empathy is your point, putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes. Sympathy is having pity for them. At this point, they don’t need our sympathy. They need our empathy.
Tavis: That’s a very different issue. We will see in the coming days if we can make the transition from sympathy to empathy. But I’m glad to have you on, as always.
Ayloush: It’s always a pleasure.
Tavis: Thank you for your work.
Ayloush: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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