LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — As a professor at the University of Arkansas, Syrian-born Najib Ghadbian is no stranger to educating Americans about the Middle East.
Now, he's taking his knowledge beyond the classroom, stepping into a new role as the Syrian opposition coalition's representative in the United States.
In teaching political science, Ghadbian has sometimes asked students to label countries on a blank map of the region. "And out of 25 countries, if I get two or three, that would be great," Ghadbian said.
As a sort of unofficial ambassador for a group President Barack Obama called the "legitimate representative" of Syria's people, Ghadbian faces the challenge not of motivating apathetic students, but of winning over wary politicians to aid the coalition's efforts to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Ghadbian (pronounced gad-BAHN') is setting up offices in New York and Washington as he and other members of the opposition coalition work to build relations with the Obama administration. They're lobbying for political support and humanitarian aid, all while laying the groundwork for a post-Assad Syria.
"It's like being the embassy here without having that title," he said.
The group's mission is already proving complicated. Last week, the U.S. announced it would for the first time provide nonlethal aid directly to the rebels fighting to oust Assad. But the decision was met with criticism by some in Syria, including the head of the rebels, Gen. Salim Idris, who said food and medical supplies won't bring the fighters any closer to defeating Assad's forces.
The Syrian conflict started two years ago as a popular uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule, then turned into a full-blown civil war after rebels took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.