National Scene

Trump Tweets and Pennsylvania Doctor thwart attack in Syria

Dr. Rim Albezem, a Syrian-born cardiologist who lives in Newtown, Penn., personally urged President Trump last month to stop the Syrian regime from launching an all-out attack on the country’s last major rebel stronghold. Photo: Matthew Hall/Philadelphia Inquirer

WASHINGTON—President Trump usesTwitteras a bully pulpit for everything from the economy to CNN’s ratings. But one tweet of his on Sept. 4 about Syria may have helped avert a massacre.

So says Rim Albezem, a cardiologist from New Jersey, who was its unlikely catalyst.

Dr. Albezem was sitting in a conference room with Mr. Trump at an Indiana fundraiser days earlier when she made a passionate appeal for action to stop a looming assault by the Syrian regimeon the country’s last major rebel sanctuary.

It worked. Mr. Trump tweeted a warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then mobilized his cabinet to pressure Syria and its patrons, Russia and Iran, actions that helped avert the deadly assault, at least temporarily.

Pupils attending a class on Monday at a school in the rebel-held northern countryside of Syria's Idlib province.
Pupils attending a class on Monday at a school in the rebel-held northern countryside of Syria’s Idlib province.Photo: amer alhamwe/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Dr. Albezem’s intervention in Indiana was no coincidence. It was the culmination of a determined campaign by a small group of Syrian-American doctors, businessmen and activists who figured out how to spur Mr. Trump to action.

Their success in influencing Mr. Trump’s foreign policy offers a roadmap for advocacy groups in the Trump era. They put ads on “Fox and Friends,” the show Mr. Trump was most likely to be watching. They hired a man Politico dubbed “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.” And, most importantly, they raised tens of thousands of dollars and used the money to repeatedly get into a room with Mr. Trump to personally deliver their pleas.

“What Rim has done is powerful,” said Mouaz Mustafa, a Syrian-American activist at the forefront of advocacy efforts in Washington since 2011. “She was able to bring attention to the president of the United States about an impending humanitarian crisis he was unaware of. The president understood the dangers—and did something about it because of Rim’s advocacy.”

The path leading Dr. Albezem to that Indiana fundraiser began in 1990, when she boarded a plane in Damascus and flew to the U.S. to study medicine in Brooklyn. Then 23 years old, Dr. Albezem considered Syria part of her past, not her future.

Motorcycle riders passing a damaged building Monday in the town of Binnish, in Syria's rebel-held northern Idlib province.
Motorcycle riders passing a damaged building Monday in the town of Binnish, in Syria’s rebel-held northern Idlib province.Photo: omar haj kadour/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

She got married, raised three kids and settled into her cardiology practice in Pennsylvania. As the Arab Spring roiled the Middle East in 2011, Dr. Albezem said she prayed it wouldn’t wash over Syria, fearing a brutal regime crackdown. Those fears were realized, and by that summer war had broken out in her native country.

As the Syrian war dragged on, Dr. Albezem became president of a local branch of the Syrian-American Medical Society and traveled with the nonprofit group to the Turkish border with Syria to care for people ferried out of war zones.

Watching the endless arrival of victims, Dr. Albezem felt it wasn’t enough.

“You have to deal with the source of the bleeding or the patient will bleed to death,” she said in an exclusive interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Humanitarian work saves one life at a time, but if you change the course of the war in Syria, you save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Trying to change policy on Syria while President Obama was in the White House was demoralizing for many Syrian advocates. Meetings with administration officials, appeals to Congress and ads in the New York Times seemed to have little impact on the president’s cautious approach to arming rebels or trying to topple Mr. Assad.

Dr. Albezem and her group looked for a way to get to the president. Allies suggested they hire Trump fundraiser and lobbyist Brian Ballard.

When meeting him earlier this year, Dr. Albezem laid out in chilling terms what was happening in Syria. She vividly described the last seconds of a dying child’s life after a chemical attack.

Mr. Ballard says he was moved. But he didn’t think he could help them. Mr. Trump wasn’t an interventionist and was pushing to withdraw American troops from Syria as soon as possible.

“‘I am not sure we can help you and I don’t want to take your money if we can’t be helpful,’” Dr. Albezem said he told them.

Dr. Albezem persisted, and Mr. Ballard relented. He laid out various ways they could try to influence the president. If you want to make your case directly to Mr. Trump, Mr. Ballard told them, there are small roundtables where you can meet him. One such fundraiser happened to be coming up in a few weeks in Mar-a-Lago.

“She’s aggressive, she figures out how to get in front of folks and, when she gets in front of them, she leaves an impression,” Mr. Ballard said. “And this president can be moved by a personal story.”

Dr. Albezem and her fellow activists raised the cash for two seats at an intimate roundtable at the president’s resort in Palm Beach, Fla. The price tag for two seats, according to activists, was $100,000. Dr. Albezem declined to comment on how much she raised for Mr. Trump and the Republican Party.

She went to Mar-a-Lago with Hayvi Bouzo, a Washington-based Syrian television anchor for Orient TV, a station frequently critical of Mr. Assad.

At the roundtable, the two women urged Mr. Trump to do more in Syria, and Mr. Trump asked aides to get him more information, Ms. Bouzo said.

Dr. Albezem helped raise more money to take part in an Aug. 30 roundtable with Mr. Trump at an Indiana fundraiser for Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun. By the president’s own account, Dr. Albezem left an indelible impression.

At the time, the Syrian military and its Russian allies were poised to attack Idlib province, the last major rebel stronghold and a sanctuary for more than 3 million people. Mr. Trump has twice described the meeting as a turning point in his thinking.

“I was at a meeting with lots of supporters and a woman stood up and she said there is a province in Syria with 3 million people right now,” Mr. Trump told reporters covering September’s United Nations General Assembly. “The Iranians, Russians and Syrians are surrounding that province and they are going to kill my sister and kill millions of people in order to get rid of 25,000 or 30,000 terrorists.”

“I said: ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

After meeting the woman, Mr. Trump said, he read a story about Idlib in the New York Times and sent out his tweet: “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” he wrote, four days after meeting Dr. Albezem. “Don’t let that happen!”

He also told aides to rally international support for another strike in Syria if Mr. Assad used chemical weapons.

Those moves coincided with international pressure, helping to avert, at least for now, an assault on Idlib. Allies of the president agreed with Syrian activists who say Mr. Trump might not have taken action when he did without meeting Dr. Albezem.

“We had the right moment and the right advice and a combination of the right elements, which is a success for the whole Syrian-American community,” Ms. Bouzo said.

Wall Street Journal, Friday, October 19,2018