As a professor at the University of Arkansas, Syrian-born Najib Ghadbian is no stranger to educating Americans about the Middle East.
Now, he’s taking his knowledge beyond the classroom, stepping into a new role as the Syrian opposition coalition’s representative in the United States.
In teaching political science, Ghadbian has sometimes asked students to label countries on a blank map of the region. « And out of 25 countries, if I get two or three, that would be great, » Ghadbian said.
As a sort of unofficial ambassador for a group President Barack Obama called the « legitimate representative » of Syria’s people, Ghadbian faces the challenge not of motivating apathetic students, but of winning over wary politicians to aid the coalition’s efforts to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Ghadbian (pronounced gad-BAHN’) is setting up offices in New York and Washington as he and other members of the opposition coalition work to build relations with the Obama administration. They’re lobbying for political support and humanitarian aid, all while laying the groundwork for a post-Assad Syria.
« It’s like being the embassy here without having that title, » he said.
The group’s mission is already proving complicated. Last week, the U.S. announced it would for the first time provide nonlethal aid directly to the rebels fighting to oust Assad. But the decision was met with criticism by some in Syria, including the head of the rebels, Gen. Salim Idris, who said food and medical supplies won’t bring the fighters any closer to defeating Assad’s forces.
The Syrian conflict started two years ago as a popular uprising against Assad’s authoritarian rule, then turned into a full-blown civil war after rebels took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.
« Change is coming, but it’s really (a question of) how to lower its cost both in terms of human lives and political destruction to the country, » Ghadbian said.
Born outside Damascus in 1962, Ghadbian left Syria for the United Arab Emirates as a teenager as some of his friends were being arrested amid political turmoil.
« Knowing that these young people — and these were high school kids or first year in university — spent a precious part of their years in prison … made me very cognizant of the question of human rights, » Ghadbian said. It made him « believe that a government that does not respect its people’s human rights is not legitimate and it does not deserve to rule. »
Those ideas stuck with Ghadbian as he studied political science at United Arab Emirates University. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey and a doctorate from the City University of New York.
In 1986, he married Syrian-born writer Mohja Kahf. Nearly a decade later, Kahf got a job teaching literature at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, a college town tucked in the Ozark Mountains about 200 miles northwest of Little Rock.
For the first few years, Ghadbian worked for a government think tank in the United Arab Emirates, with his wife coming to visit for summers and breaks, before he landed a job at the University of Arkansas.
Colleagues say Ghadbian’s time in Arkansas — where he is currently on leave from the university — prepared him for his role with the Syrian opposition coalition.
« I know a lot of people who’ve only spent time in the Washington corridor or on the East Coast, Chicago, places like that, and when we talk about middle America — red, white and blue states — they don’t really have their feet on the ground in that respect, » said Joel Gordon, who directs University of Arkansas’ Middle East studies center. « Najib is someone who strikes me as being well-rooted at this point, well-spoken, thoughtful, kind of a natural-born diplomat. »
Over the years, Ghadbian’s knowledge of the Arab world has proved an asset to the university. His classes filled up as he developed a reputation as a charismatic teacher who knows Middle East politics inside and out.
« He was one of the main reasons why I decided to apply for my graduate degree at the University of Arkansas, just knowing that I could work with him, » said Laila Taraghi, a former student who now lives in Olympia, Wash.
Ghadbian has long been a voice in the media, calling for democracy and weighing in on the political scene in the Middle East, so he doesn’t see a conflict between his roles as activist and academic. Neither do most university officials, though Gordon said he thinks Ghadbian needs to be more careful in his current position.
« He’s a university professor, but he’s not acting in a university capacity, » Gordon said.
Ghadbian seems reluctant to predict what will happen in Syria now, but he emphasizes the importance of establishing an interim government.
« The whole idea of forming the interim government is to be able to control the FSA, the Free Syrian Army, under one command and structure, » Ghadbian said. « By so doing, we believe we could isolate and marginalize the extremist forces, which many of the Friends of Syria are concerned about and we are concerned about. »