Syria's honorary consul-general in California said Wednesday that he has resigned and severed ties with the government of President Bashar Assad in protest of the killings last week in the township of Houla.
Hazem Chehabi, reached at his Laguna Beach home, said he had been disturbed by events in his homeland throughout the nearly 15-month uprising and felt compelled to leave the volunteer position he has held for 18 years after the attack Friday that left more than 100 Syrians dead, most of them women and children.
"You get to a point where your silence or inaction becomes ethically or morally unacceptable," Chehabi said, describing the Houla killings as a "barbaric" incident with which he couldn't be associated.
Chehabi was one of Syria's highest-ranking diplomats in the United States and is the first to publicly break ranks with the government that he helped with cultural and educational exchanges. He had been reported by the Syrian American Council to have defected, but he pointed out that as a U.S. citizen now he cannot "defect." He is simply leaving his post to focus on his medical profession and family life.
"You see the country you've come from -- the country you loved, the country that raised you and launched you -- disintegrating before your eyes," Chehabi said of the slow-motion conversion of his sentiments toward Syria. "You hold on to a glimpse of hope and promise that reforms will take hold, that the country will turn around. But you see those hopes and dreams dashed every day with the violence and hopelessness on the ground."
A key function of his role as honorary consul was issuing visas for visits to Syria, which he said have dropped from about 2,000 a year before the uprising to fewer than 50 over the last year.
The United States on Tuesday joined a number of other nations in expelling Syria's diplomats in protest of the Houla slayings, which U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Wednesday were clearly the work of militiamen loyal to Assad.
A spokesman for the Syrian American Council said Chehabi, as a U.S. citizen and as honorary consul, wasn't subject to Washington's expulsion order.
"We welcome Chehabi's resignation and urge him to use his ties with Syrian officials to convince them to defect from the Assad regime in order to help speed its fall and save lives," council activist Ammar Kahf said.
But Chehabi told The Times that he has never has been a politician and, despite his break with the Syrian government, wasn't planning to become an activist for the opposition.
He is chairman of the UC Irvine's Board of Trustees foundation, and has been the subject of student protests urging his removal.
Chehabi, 54, came to the United States in 1979 to study nuclear medicine and stayed.
Charles Ries, director of Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy, said the diplomatic expulsions could force Syrian officials, military officers and foreign envoys around the world to reconsider their relationship with the Assad regime and set off embarrassing defections that the Syrian president has so far been spared.
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles