An Interview with Wa’el Alzayat

By Mustafa Rasheed

This past summer, I was able to intern with an organization called Emgage in Washington, D.C. Emgage is a non-partisan organization that seeks to empower the Muslim-American community by promoting civic engagement, endorsing candidates that align with the interests of the community, and pursuing a like-minded legislative agenda. In my time in D.C., I sought interviews with individuals who had significantly contributed to an area of foreign policy.

Wa’el Alzayat is CEO of Emgage, where he provides strategic and operational guidance and management for the organization. He is based in Washington, D.C. Alzayat previously served with distinction as a U.S. Middle East policy expert at the U.S. Department of State for ten years, including as Senior Policy Advisor to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and Syria Outreach Coordinator with Ambassador Robert Ford. Alzayat has long been a passionate advocate for protecting fundamental American values and freedoms, and increasing the civic engagement of minority communities (Emgage 2017).

This interview took place on July 5, 2018.


What initiatives did you take in the State Department?

I primarily worked on U.S. policy to Iraq following the invasion. I worked on Iraq’s relationship with the Arab World and the international community after the fall of the Saddam Regime. It was about rehabilitating and establishing Iraq’s ties to the international community. Another was to resolve some of Iraq’s outstanding issues with regards to Kuwait. There were legacy issues since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the first Gulf War. I worked on Iraq’s internal issues, such as transitioning it to a full sovereign country. I got to work on the Syria policy after the revolution there. This was understanding the opposition, initiating various support to the political opposition, humanitarian assistance, working on a number of initiatives what ultimately became the Geneva peace process for Syria. We were working on a political track to resolve the crisis there. In those projects, I worked in different capacities. Lastly, I was a Senior Adviser to Samantha Powers at the United Nations.  For her, I covered Syria, Iraq, and the broader Middle East.

Was there a particular initiative you liked?

I don’t know if the word is “liked” but I got very much engaged in establishing an accountability mechanism for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. I did this knowing that the regime was complicit yet there was no accountability. We worked to establish an international body to assign responsibility. I also worked very hard to support the moderate opposition in Syria. In terms of recognizing them politically, supporting them with capacity-building, and then supporting the affected communities with as much assistance as possible.

What led you to being the Chief Executive Officer of Emgage?

I felt strongly for the need to organize and mobilize the Muslim-American community politically in order to ensure we elect leaders who reflect our values and protect our interests rather than the ones we see right now who are actively harming our community and demonizing it. As someone who served our country for ten years, I feel we have a lot of work here and that needs to be taken care of.

What is your view on the current state of the Syrian Conflict and where do you see it heading?

The conflict has been playing out for 10 years. It has always been and always will be a revolution of the people against a tyrannical, unelected dictatorship that has used any means necessary to stay in power including using all kinds of weapons both legal and illegal against its people. It’s a regime supported by Iran, the Russians, by Hezbollah, and all kinds of militias all over the world to help it not only defeat the opposition but ensure that the regime and only the regime will remain in the definite future. It will go down as one of the worst atrocities in modern history since World War II. One where the international community has been a passive observer or complicit in. There are countries who have not provided enough support to the Syrian people,  countries who have maybe aided and abetted the regime, and countries that have just washed their hands of the responsibility

Where is it heading? Its heading to more killing and displacement as we see right now in southern Syria where 260,000 people are stranded at the border with Jordan in the Jordan Desert in the middle of the summer. You will see more of the regime retaking, via military means, back most of the territory but at a cost of beyond the death and destruction and displacement which is more entrenched Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah influence in Syria. Then some areas will probably remain under Kurdish control and a few pockets under Turkish/allied militia control in the North. There would be a de-facto fragmentation of some parts but most will go back under the brutal regime.

You served under the Bush and Obama administration. Compare and/or contrast the two administrations in their foreign policy approaches.

The Bush administration had a proactive, aggressive, interventionist policy in certain areas. This was obviously epitomized by the Iraq invasion which was driven by idealides in the administration. They felt that the United States can only serve its interests in that of its allies such as Israel, key Gulf states, etc. by being proactive in removing troubling regimes such as the Saddam Regime and by working to reshape certain societies that serves American interests. They went about and did it at great expense and sacrifice.

Contrast that with the Obama administration and Obama himself who does not believe that it is  the United States’s place to force world events to its liking absent strong domestic and international consensus. That is at the opposite of the neocon philosophy and Syria is a great example of Obama’s disdain for intervention. At the end of the day, preference to let events unfold if they did present a direct impact on American national interests.

I think that world events require a little bit of both philosophies and sometimes neither. The thought that we could invade a sovereign country,, remove its leadership, and plant our own approved leaders and system in most cases is immoral and misguided. However, to stand idly by and watch genocide is in fact more repugnant. I think that the the United States as the world’s superpower and a country that likes to uphold certain values, we do have a responsibility to act when need but not with excess. Every case is different and it is wrong to have a certain copycat policy for every case. You cannot draw two close of an analysis between different situations, but if you were to, I think what we did in Bosnia is somewhat the balance we want to strike which neither Bush or Obama have done.

In the Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States, Secretary of Defense James Mattis establishes, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”. What is your take on terrorism and inter-state strategic competition?

It [inter-state strategic competition] has always been the primary concern and it always will be. I do not think it was ever about international terrorism. International terrorism is a symptom and it requires tactical responses in most cases. In certain cases, when the Islamic State overran Mosul, it did present a real threat to the Iraqi state. But when talking about American national interest, groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda never have and never will in their actual power present a real threat to the United States. Where they can present a threat is in our response. They can present a strategic threat when we unravel our own constitutional order, civil liberties, tolerance, and openness. They can present a real threat to our national character and social cohesion. However, one to one with troop and weapon count, it’s not even a contest. It’s in the response. They can go and blow up as many things as they want abroad or, dare I say it, here. But strategically, that does not pose a threat to us. What does pose a threat is whether we go ahead and undermine the very foundation of who we are as a country.

It is the competition amongst states and within states of different people that has always been and will always be. An entity like Hezbollah is a non-state actor. I would argue that Syria was never a state, rather, the regime of Assad. Most countries in the region are ruling families who control the military and security. They are not states, they are tribes. It is inter-tribal warfare. Putin, does he represent the entire Russian state? Maybe. Does the Iranian regime represent the entire country? Is what the Iranian regime doing for the Iranian state or is it to preserve the 10, 20, 100 rulers of Iran? Is China, what China is functioning today, the Chinese system or is it the ruling elite of the communist party and/or the businessmen around them? Whatever the entity, it is the economic-political interest that is the source of the biggest tension in the international community.

Michael Pompeo was recently confirmed to lead the State Department. Where do you see the Trump/Pompeo led State Department heading and what will its legacy look like?

It is too early to tell. I think that they will try to package what they are doing in North as one of their greatest achievements. The optics of what they are willing to do which is meet with the North Koreans and have meetings in Pyongyang. It is noteworthy, but the substance of what they are trying to achieve in longevity is to be determined. It was Nixon who went to China and Trump may be able to disarm the North Koreans by offering them all kinds of incentives, but it is way early to tell. They will accomplish nothing more than further legitimize Israeli occupation and further empower the right-wing settlers, so that’s not an accomplishment as far as I am concerned. I see them disengaging more in Syria and giving it more to the regime, Russia, and its allies. Not an accomplishment. Who knows? The things that they have been planning or things that happen that affects them in one way and another is yet to be seen. George W. Bush had plans and then 9/11 happened and then he reacted by invading Iraq. The dismantling of the nuclear agreement with Iran, it depends, do the Europeans continue to honor it and trade with the Iranians or not? A lot of things are still in flux in my opinion. Another items is continuing to degrade the US Transatlantic relationship with the Europeans. That is going to be one of their legacies is, to really undermine it in such a way that future administrations will grapple in reestablishing it.

Image Credit: Emgage

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