In this turbulent election year, one constant theme for leaders of both major parties is a desire to build a global coalition against the Islamic State. Now a relatively unknown group is taking that message literally.
On Wednesday, a nonprofit known as the Global Alliance for Terminating al-Qaeda/ISIS, or Gafta, will host a conference at the National Press Club featuring Bouthaina Shaaban, the media adviser to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The conference will also give a platform to Bassam al-Hussain, who is the Iraqi government's liaison to the country's militias, many of them sponsored by Iran, a country designated for years by the State Department as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.
For good measure, Gafta's treasurer, Ghassan Mansour, was named by the U.S. Justice Department in a 2011 indictment for participating in a money-laundering scheme on behalf of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. (Mansour told me he didn't know he was selling cars to a Hezbollah front in Africa and says he was never prosecuted).
These kinds of associations would have made Gafta political kryptonite only a few years ago. In 2013, President Barack Obama was considering his response to the Assad's chemical weapons attack on rebels at Ghouta. Shaaban at the time told media outlets the rebels had gassed themselves to make the regime look bad. U.S. policy encouraged the decommissioning of Iraqi militias and Treasury was squeezing Hezbollah finances.
But Obama never struck the Assad regime for crossing his chemical-weapons red line. In 2016, the president has softened his position on Syria's dictator. U.S. diplomats support peace negotiations that would leave Assad in power for a transition period, a far cry from the old policy that demanded the despot leave power. While the Treasury Department is still hunting Hezbollah assets, the U.S. will not end its support for Lebanon's military, even though it works closely with the group. As for the Iraqi militias, the U.S. has provided them with air cover in operations against the Islamic State.
Ahmad Maki Kubba, one of the founders of Gafta, said the nonprofit was founded in April 2014, but until now the group has focused efforts outside of Washington, such as raising awareness about the horrors of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State among Arab and Muslim Americans. It hasn't raised much money. Mansour said Gafta's funds come primarily from him and Kubba. He estimated they have put up between $20,000 and $30,000 for the organization since it started.
Not surprising, Gafta hasn't had much traction in Washington. Mansour said he has asked for meetings at the White House and with members of Congress, but had little luck. He said his group did get a meeting with staff for Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida.
Yet Gafta's founders are optimistic. Kubba told me that while he didn't agree with Donald Trump's recommendation to impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., he did think the real-estate mogul was clear-eyed on how to defeat the Islamic State. "Our view is close to Senator Rand Paul and even Donald Trump," Kubba told me, comparing a U.S. alliance with Assad against the Islamic State to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's alliance with Josef Stalin against Adolf Hitler. He paused, though, to add that he didn't think Assad was as bad as Stalin, but that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were worse than the Nazis. "We promote global unity," Kubba said.
That is one way of looking at it. Mouaz Moustafa, a board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a staunchly anti-Assad nonprofit, takes a different view. He told me Shaaban "is a criminal who has been under U.S. sanctions for a long time." Shaaban has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union since 2011, and will therefore not be appearing in person but will address Wednesday's conference via skype. Moustafa thinks even this is going too far: "We are looking at this as a legal violation of U.S. sanctions," he said.
Moustafa is not alone in opposing an alliance of convenience with Assad against the jihadists. Last week at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Abdel Aziz al-Hamza, a co-founder of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a nongovernmental group that documents the Islamic State's atrocities and shares them on the internet, told me he opposed any U.S. policy that allowed Assad to remain in power.
"Obama promised to help the Syrian people but he did not," he said. "His government wants to include Bashar Assad for the next step for our country. How could we include a criminal like Assad to be president for any period of time?"
Kubba disagrees. "If Assad goes, ISIS will rule Syria. Do you want that? No," he told me. "Maybe Assad will leave after a period of time. We don't know. But we can make common ground between humanity against ISIS and al-Qaeda." Kubba went one further: "Israel and Iran could agree on fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda," he mused.
As he told me, his organization promotes "global unity."