They and other Arab-Americans in my constituency urged me to go to the Middle East region, including their native Lebanon as well as Syria and Israel, to meet with political leaders, religious leaders and the general public to become better acquainted with people's concerns.
At no time in the years we have known each other did Elie or Bassam Khawam ever attempt to influence me to say anything or do anything with regard to Syria, Lebanon, Israel or any other country. Their consistent concerns have been about violence engulfing the region and reigniting war in their native land.
At no time during any of the trips sponsored by AACCESS to the region, during which I visited the government as well as the opposition, did I ever take sides in Syria's internal politics, or publicly state support for the regime, its repressive practices, its brutality to political opponents, or its security state apparatus.
To the contrary, in my first visit, in 2006, at a public meeting in a Damascus auditorium, I met with more than 300 Syrians of various religions and politics, some of whom openly discussed their opposition to the Assad regime.
In a meeting a with Assad himself a few days later, I confronted him with opponents' demands for a new constitution, where individual rights, particularly protection of freedom of speech, without retribution from the security apparatus. Opponents also wanted a Constitution that would permit non-Muslims to pursue the Presidency, an obvious frontal challenge to the regime.
I gave Assad a copy of the US Constitution and suggested he and the people of Syria would benefit from an open society, guided by US Constitutional principles, particularly free speech and more open elections. That conversation was sidelined once Syria faced external threats. Reforms, however, still must occur, whatever their political impact upon the regime.
When I was invited to speak by the European Centre for the Study of Extremism
in London last year on the topic of resolving the conflict in Syria, a California-based organization named the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees
offered to pay the speaker's fee. The organization did not identify itself as having any interest other than human rights and never specifically mentioned to me their interest in or position regarding the Syrian regime. If they had, I would have declined their offer, because anyone who stands for peace must be able to remain above the appearance of influence. Accordingly, having only recently learned of their advocacy, I am returning their fee.