The ongoing crisis in Syria, with daily reports of bloodshed by the Baathist dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, has also brought controversy to the University of California at Irvine, which is still contending with an unresolved dispute over Middle East issues.
Southern California Syrian-Americans have been criticizing UC Irvine's links with Dr. Hazem Chehabi, the local honorary consul for the Syrian dictatorship. Chehabi is chair of the UC Irvine Foundation. Chehabi and his wife Salma donated $1 million to the university in 2005.
Earlier, in February 2010, an Irvine campus speech by Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren was shouted down by a group of which 11 members were arrested for conspiring to interrupt, and then proceeding to interrupt, Oren's presentation. The detained disrupters included eight students from UC Irvine and three from the University of California at Riverside. The UC Irvine Muslim Student Union, following the incident, was suspended for three months, put on student probation for two years, and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service. One Irvine defendant, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, has accepted an added individual term of 40 hours' community service and will not be charged in the judicial case. The proceeding against the remaining 10 is expected to begin in an Orange County court on August 15.
Now, for at least three months, Syrian-Americans have been demonstrating loudly against the Al-Assad regime at two locations in Newport Beach, Calif. One is the consular office of the Syrian regime, and the other is the consultancy office of Chehabi, a nuclear medicine specialist and one of three honorary Syrian consuls in the U.S. Led by Ammar Kahf, organizer of the Syrian Emergency Task Force of Greater Los Angeles, the protestors have called for Chehabi's resignation from his consular position.
In an email to a community newspaper, the Orange County Weekly, in May, Chehabi declared, "Personally, I am opposed to the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators, and find no justification whatsoever in shooting unarmed civilians. I am saddened about the daily loss of life in Syria and hope to see it come to an end as quickly as possible."
Hazem Chehabi is closely tied to Syria's leader, Bashar Al-Assad, with whom he grew up, and, according to National Public Radio, with whom he continues to meet.
Perhaps most significantly, his father is General Hikmat Chehabi (also spelled Shehabi and Shihabi), the late Damascus dictator Hafez Al-Assad's former army chief of staff, with top command of Syrian troops in the infamous Hama massacre of 1982 and other atrocious events. Hikmat Chehabi was replaced in his military post in 1998. According to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya broadcast network, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri told American officials in 2006 that he favored replacing Hafez Al-Assad with a coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood, General Chehabi, and former vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam. General Chehabi moved to California, and he is said to be suspected of disloyalty to the Al-Assad regime, although he continues to visit Damascus. Abdel Halim Khaddam has published a book of documents purporting to show Syria and Iran conspiring to protect former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Regarding Syria and Hazem Chehabi, the general's son, on July 8 UC Irvine chancellor Michael Drake released a statement in which he said, "We join the world community in expressing outrage at the continued violence toward unarmed civilians in Syria and in demanding that the violence stop. We appreciate Dr. Chehabi's support of our university and our students over the years. We support his efforts and those of the broader world community in reaching a peaceful and just resolution."
On Tuesday, August 2, NPR interviewer Amy Walters recorded Ammar Kahf repeating his condemnation of UC Irvine's association with Chehabi and declaring "We feel that any person with even remote connection with the regime, people being killed, they should say I'm not going to be associated with this brutal regime."
Chehabi met with NPR but refused to be recorded and declined to discuss the Al-Assad regime. His refusal to resign from his consular duties has also been denounced by Phoenix-based Syrian-American physician M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and leader of an effort titled "Save Syria Now!"
In 2010, Hazem and Salma Chehabi were the subjects of a video tribute posted to YouTube, honoring them as recipients of the "UCI Medal," which is awarded to "community leaders, innovative faculty, and stellar alumni." The video curiously dwells on their "good looks," perfect grooming, and elegance, and includes a cringeworthy comment by cardiologist James Shelburne, who describes Salma Chehabi as "one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen in my life," adding, "and I'm from Alabama and I know beautiful women." The video ends with Tom Mitchell, vice president for development and alumni affairs at the University of Florida, showing off a stuffed alligator, with prominent teeth and menacing eyes, which he describes as the U. of Florida mascot and which he has "dressed… in his Middle Eastern attire."
Is a vicious reptile in Arab garb, even as a toy, intended to honor Hazem Chehabi? Perhaps U. of Florida's Mitchell unconsciously hit on the reality of the present-day Syrian regime, its bloodthirsty conduct, and Chehabi's link to it. UC Irvine alumni should join Syrian-Americans in their concern over the Syrian situation and the possible involvement with it of their alma mater.