DEBRA HALE-SHELTON ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
CONWAY — When U.S. Sen. John McCain was photographed in Syria recently, some Arkansans saw a familiar face standing near him, albeit one with a name that’s not exactly Southern: Mouaz Moustafa, a University of Central Arkansas graduate who has worked for more than two years to help Syrian rebels.
Moustafa, 28, is executive director of the nonprofit Syrian Emergency Task Force, a Syrian-American advocacy group that took credit for organizing the Arizona Republican’s brief May 27 visit to the Middle Eastern country.
The organization, which says it was formed “to convey the democratic aspirations of Syrians to the American people,” has offices in Syria, Turkey and Washington.
Moustafa was born in Damascus, Syria. When he was about 12, he and his family moved to the United States, where as a teenager he became a citizen. He grew up in Hot Springs, and his parents now live in Little Rock.
Long interested in politics, Moustafa graduated in 2008 from UCA, where he majored in international studies. Later, after working for former U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln and former U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder — both Democrats from Arkansas — Moustafa took his interests to another level.
Moustafa said he wanted to help others achieve their version of the American dream, just as his own family had done by moving to the United States. So he worked with rebels in Egypt for a couple of weeks and with Libyan revolutionaries for more than a year.
Then in March 2011, his work took him back to his native Syria, torn apart by a civil war between rebels and President Bashar Assad’s regime. Thousands of civilians have been killed.
Moustafa, who speaks English, Arabic and Spanish, flies back and forth between the Middle East and the United States, rarely staying away from either place for extended periods.
“I can’t stay away from Washington too long; I can’t stay away from Syria too long,” he said during a telephone interview from Washington last week as he prepared to return to the Middle East.
This time, he will stay in Syria — where he has offices in three cities — for 10 days to two weeks before he returns to Washington, where, he said, he regularly confers with State Department officials, members of Congress and the National Security Council.
State Department spokesman Ariel Vaagen said Friday that the department “has a good working relationship with the Syrian Emergency Task Force.”
The task force “is one organization in the broad range of Syrian diaspora groups with whom we have regular contract,” Vaagen said in an e-mail.
Moustafa, who also is political director for a group called United for a Free Syria, said his focus is to help peaceful protesters in Syria while also honoring U.S. interests.
He wants the United States to take a more aggressive role in Syria.
“By that, I mean a greater political role and greater role in terms of military intervention,” he said. “But by no means does that mean entering another war or sending any troops on the ground, or that any American lives ever be put at risk.”
Specifically, he favors arming rebels and perhaps declaring a military no-fly zone.
“The whole international community is waiting for the United States to act,” he said. “It is pivotal that we have to take the greater leadership role.”
This offers a “golden opportunity” for Syria to become a democracy, he said. Left alone, he said, Syria could become an “even greater national security challenge” than it is now.
President Barack Obama’s administration is leery of too much military involvement in the civil war amid concerns about such things as whether any U.S.-supplied weapons would get into the wrong hands. McCain, however, favors a no-fly zone over Syria and arming rebels.
Moustafa said he respects Obama but believes that he president “has been too cautious.”
“The risks of intervening in any way are far outweighed by sitting down and doing nothing while the whole world asks for leadership,” Moustafa contended.
If the United States doesn’t arm the revolutionaries, others will continue to arm rebels and may choose those who do “not share our values or the values of the revolution,” he said.
“That’s why it’s important for us to arm the right people. The right people are [those in military councils] that are willing to be under civilian command and want a democracy,” he said.
These councils, he said, consist mostly of soldiers who defected because they did not want to shoot children and other civilians.
When he’s in Syria, Moustafa stays “in the houses of civilians or revolutionaries.”
“They feed us. They do everything,” he said.
Moustafa has some extended family members who still consider Syria their home. Some have had to move to other places in Syria, while others are refugees in Jordan, he said.
“It’s really miserable, and it’s heartbreaking” for many families, he said. “Their lives have changed drastically and forever. But their stories are countless.”
In Moustafa’s view, “it’s the responsibility for anybody who has a roof over their heads to speak out” and help as they can. “It is our responsibility as people of the United States to stand up for freedom everywhere.”
“It’s an American dream bigger than the dream we think of here,” he said. “This is the story of me and my family. … [It is] “a world dream based on that American experience.”
Mark Mullenbach, a UCA political science professor, remembers his former student as “a very adventurous type of person” who traveled in Europe and the Middle East.
Mullenbach, director of UCA’s International Studies Program, said Moustafa used to talk about oppressed people in the Middle East, “especially with respect to the Palestinians.”
While Mullenbach favors a more cautious approach to U.S. involvement in Syria, he said he remains proud of Moustafa and has heard from him in recent years.
“I was watching television that night [of Mc-Cain’s visit to Syria] and … I saw the picture” showing Moustafa with the senator and others. “I sort of yelled out to my wife, ‘Hey, there’s Mouaz !’”
AP/Syrian Emergency Task Force/MOUAZ MOUSTAFA In this May 27, 2013 photo provided by Mouaz Moustafa and the Syrian Emergency Task Force, U.S. Sen. John McCain (center) is accompanied by Moustafa (right) as he visits rebels in Syria. Moustafa, who is executive director of the nonprofit Syrian Emergency Task Force, is a 2008 graduate of the University of Central Arkansas.