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US role in Syrian civil war divides Arab-Americans

September 11, 2013

DEARBORN, Michigan (AP) — Sawsan Jabri and Osama Siblani share Middle Eastern roots and the American dream. They also represent dissension among Arab-Americans over Syria’s civil war and growing ideological, political and regional differences.

Jabri is a doctor from Syria who teaches microbiology. Siblani came from Lebanon to be an engineer and now publishes the influential Arab-American News.

Each speaks for opposing camps. Jabri is a spokeswoman for the Syrian Expatriates Organization, a lobbying and fundraising group of doctors and other professionals that staged rallies in support of the U.S. backing rebels in Syria’s civil war and ousting President Bashar Assad. Siblani has opposed U.S. intervention through counter-demonstrations and the opinion pages of his newspaper.

When it comes to Syria, Siblani says, there’s little room for agreement.

“I have been in this business for 29 years,” he said. “I have never seen the community divided as much as we are divided today. ... It is an elephant in the room all the time.”

President Barack Obama has been pushing for U.S. military action, but on Tuesday he asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force and expressed support for a new diplomatic plan for U.N. Security Council talks aimed at securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

Positions on Syria have highlighted Arab ties to the U.S. that date back more than a century, when immigrants from the Arab world started coming en masse and moved into enclaves dubbed “Little Syria.”

They originally came from what today are known as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel or the Palestinian territories but then was Ottoman-controlled Syria. More came later from the region, particularly after immigration restrictions were eased in the 1960s and during the 15-year Lebanese civil war ending in 1990.

The Syrian community in the U.S. is estimated to be about 150,000 people, but the number could be much higher if it reflected all those who trace their roots to early 20th century Greater Syria. The Detroit area alone, which has one of the largest Middle East populations in the U.S., has roughly 150,000 Arabs and Chaldeans, or Iraqi Christians, based on the latest available data and scholarly research.

Siblani and Jabri agree that Syria has divided the U.S. Arab community despite a history of coexistence among different religions, Islamic sects, regions or countries.

“I don’t know what’s happened — people became more into everyone’s identity,” said Jabri, who contends that Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons numerous times and he should be toppled and prosecuted. “The separation is not working in our direction.”

Some of the rising tension reflects what’s happening in community members’ homelands. Lebanon and Syria share a complicated history and a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, and Syria’s civil war next door has intensified divisions. The Syrian rebels enjoy the backing of many Lebanese Sunnis, while the Syrian government has the support of Lebanon’s Shiite community, including the powerful militant Hezbollah group.

“The situation gets very tense when you try to say who is responsible for what,” Siblani said.

A couple hundred people rallied Friday in support of U.S. airstrikes in a Detroit suburb, while about 100 opponents marched through Detroit on Sunday. Siblani compared the relatively low numbers with the thousands who demonstrated in 2006 during a 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel that destroyed much of southern Lebanon.

“Everyone is staying home and doesn’t want to get involved,” Siblani said. “But on the ground and in their living rooms ... they are segregated.”

In deciding whether to hold a public show of support for Assad this week, Syrian-born Michael Ibrahim recalled a clash that broke out the last time Syrians in New Jersey held a protest. In April 2011, a protest had to be controlled by police when Syrians both for and against Assad packed a small park in the heart of the state’s Arab-American community and tried shouting one another down in English and Arabic.

“We don’t want any problems,” said Ibrahim, a Syrian Christian priest. “It’s enough with what’s going on in our country — we don’t want more trouble here.”

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Associated Press writer Samantha Henry in Paterson, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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Follow Jeff Karoub on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub

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