Syrian Consul General In California Resigns

The U.S. and several governments worldwide have expelled Syrian diplomats in a coordinated protest against last weekend's massacre of more than 100 civilians in the village of Houla. The diplomatic fallout has spread to California, where Syrian Consul General Hazem Chehabi announced his resignation from the post. For more on his decision, Renee Montagne talks to Chehabi.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We turn now to a political defection. One of Syria's longtime honorary consuls here in California has resigned. Honorary consuls handle passports and other diplomatic matters for local communities.

Yesterday, the U.S. expelled Syria's top diplomat, its charge d'affaire. That move was part of a coordinated protest involving more than a dozen countries, over the mass killing in the Syrian town of Houla, where entire families were executed.

Ever since the Assad regime began its violent crackdown, many Syrian Americans in California have been demanding that their honorary consul resign. Dr. Hazem Chehabi agreed to speak to us about his decision to leave his post.

Good morning, and thank you for joining us.

DR. HAZEM CHEHABI: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the violence in Syria has been going on for over a year now and so far, you have resisted considerable pressure to step down. I think a lot of people might be asking, why now?

CHEHABI: Well, I'm not really sure that there's ever a perfect time for a move like this. This situation in Syria is painful. And we've all watched, in a way, with horror - and helplessly for the last year or so, in hope of things turning for the better. But you get to a point where your silence, or your inaction, becomes ethically and morally unacceptable. And although I think I may have been there a while ago, the recent barbaric massacre that took place in the town of Houla, for me, was a tipping point; and was a point beyond which one could not justify remaining silent, and/or remaining in a position that may be perceived, correctly or incorrectly, as having ties to the Syrian government.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, being honorary consul has tied you to the regime of Assad. Was there pressure on you from the State Department - the U.S. State Department - as well, to step down?

CHEHABI: Not at all. There's never been any pressure from the State Department. I've never really viewed my position as that of a diplomat. An honorary consul general plays the role of a volunteer; really, facilitating and taking care of the affair of one's constituents - in my case, the Syrian-American community in the state of California and on the West Coast.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know Syria's President Bashar al-Assad quite well, I gather - going back to your childhood. What reaction do you expect from him over your resignation?

CHEHABI: It's really not a concern for me, at this point. My concern is more about the country of my origin, the country I've loved and continue to love. And my concern is more about the fate of the Syrian people and the population that is suffering, with no end in sight.

MONTAGNE: Bashar al-Assad was once seen to be a reformer. What do you make of what he is doing now, in Syria?

CHEHABI: I'm not really sure that I can make sense of what is taking place in Syria. The president has to be responsible for the action of his own government. And either you're committing those atrocities and therefore, you're guilty; or you're not preventing them from happening, and the buck has to stop somewhere. And to me, the buck stops all the way at the top.

MONTAGNE: Looking ahead, do you think if President al-Assad steps down - and there are those who say that this is inevitable - but if he steps down, will there be peace?

CHEHABI: I think whether he steps down or not is a decision that the Syrian people have to make. And I think that in order for Syria to get back on track, there has to be some fundamental and significant changes that I doubt the regime is capable of making, at this point. And my biggest fear is that Syria may not be able to survive as a nation, as a result of the violence that we've been witnessing for the last year or so.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Chehabi, thank you very much for joining us.

CHEHABI: Thanks for having me, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Until yesterday, Hazem Chehabi was Syria's honorary consul here, in Southern California. He has resigned his post after 18 years.

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