A flyer on a Washington, DC bus stop’s hutch catches the eye with its depiction of President Barack Obama clutching a piece of paper bearing the word “Appeasement.” Closer examination shows a caricature of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bearing a Hitler-mustache and an SS lapel pin.
It’s only after reaching the bottom of the screed — which unfavorably compares the current lack of U.S. military intervention in Syria to the inaction during previous massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia — that it becomes clear the flyer isn’t from a group normally associated with human rights promotion. Instead, it’s from the DC Tenants Advocacy Coalition.
The Coalition — also known as TENAC — is an umbrella group that represents all of Washington’s renters, which make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s population, on issues of tenant interests, tenant rights, and support for rent control. TENAC also serves as the umbrella group for 500 tenants associations, which represent an estimated 90–100,000 members within Washington, DC.
“We take positions on anything that has to do with hurting populations, particularly housing,” TENAC Chairman Jim McGrath said when ThinkProgress reached him via phone. “And when you take a look at Syria right now, there’s 100,000 people killed who have been deprived of everything including homes and life itself.”
Even more important, according to McGrath, is the Syrian refugee crisis, in which more than one million Syrians have been registered in the countries surrounding Syria. Life for refugees is “horrendous” and “a housing calamity,” McGrath said. “The refugee situation there is enormous and its something our members care a lot about,” he said.
As the flyer evinces, McGrath places much of the blame of Syria’s current troubles squarely on Obama’s shoulders. “Obama is falling down on the job by not taking a stand on it,” he said. “He keeps talking about red lines but he’s not doing anything about it.”
In response to the recent claims of chemical weapons usage and the ongoing violence against civilians, TENAC is currently calling for a No-Fly Zone to be put into place about Syrian airspace. In fact, McGrath wishes that such an action had been taken sooner. “We believe that if a No-Fly Zone had went into effect earlier, this whole situation would become academic,” he told ThinkProgress. “I think the whole crisis would be over. Bashar would be gone, the country recovering. Instead, the whole country is going down the chute.”
Military officials have repeatedly expressed their skepticism about the efficacy of military intervention in Syria in the past, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. Dempsey recently wrote to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking member to voice his concerns about just what will happen the day after U.S. forces hypothetically remove Assad from power.
TENAC’s membership is apparently fine with the group’s strong stance on Syria, with McGrath reporting to ThinkProgress that he hasn’t received any pushback from his members over the choice to advocate for further action in Syria. McGrath says that if it’s related to housing, TENAC feels free to take a stand on it without further consultation of its members. “We have a broad writ from the membership of the organization to take positions on housing in the city, in the country, anywhere housing abuses exist,” he told ThinkProgress.
This isn’t the first time that McGrath has used the organization to speak out on an international issue. In 2010, the group sent out an emailed press release in support of the group’s Israeli webmaster and condemning the harassment he had seen in his activism surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We have a loud voice here on tenant rights and the like,” he told Washington City Paper at the time. “Tenants rights begs the whole rights question. This is a civil rights question in Israel.”
For now, though, TENAC won’t be increasing its lobbying beyond the public education campaign that the flyers represent. According to McGrath, there’s no plan to take the pressure to DC officials, who he rightly says don’t have much of a stake in foreign policy-making. “The polls show that most of the American people do not favor intervention in Syria, and that’s because they really don’t know the scope of it and that’s because they’re not focused on it,” he said. “And that’s because the administration not focused on it. So its a circular pattern that we’re trying to break by bringing it to a basic grassroots-level.”