A high-profile Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii said she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a secret “fact-finding” trip she took to the country recently.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, told CNN on Wednesday that when she went to the country earlier this month she initially hadn’t planned on meeting with Assad. But when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Gabbard if she met with the authoritarian ruler, she answered, “I did.”
“My reason for going to visit Syria was really because of the suffering of the Syrian people that has been weighing heavily on my heart,” she said. “I wanted to see if there was in some small way that I could express the love and the ‘aloha’ and the care that the American people have for the people of Syria and to see firsthand what was happening there.”
Gabbard released a statement shortly after the CNN interview aired.
“My visit to Syria has made it abundantly clear: Our counterproductive regime change war does not serve America’s interest, and it certainly isn’t in the interest of the Syrian people,” she said in the statement.
Gabbard was in Syria for four days. The nonprofit Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS)-Ohio sponsored the trip, according to Gabbard’s statement.
Obama administration officials have repeatedly insisted that Assad, who has been accused of massacring his own people, must step down. But the US hasn’t directly intervened to bring an end to his brutal rule.
Gabbard said in her statement that she returned to the US “with even greater resolve to end our illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government.”
Gabbard has been a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s calls for Assad to relinquish power. On December 8, she introduced to Congress the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would prohibit the US government from funding or arming extremist groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.
“When the opportunity arose to meet with [Assad], I did so because I felt it’s important that if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people, about their suffering, then we’ve got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there’s a possibility that we could achieve peace,” Gabbard said. “And that’s exactly what we’ve talked about.”
When Tapper noted the crimes Assad has been accused of, Gabbard defended her choice to meet with him.
“Whatever you think about President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria,” she said. “In order for any peace agreement, in order for any possibility of a viable peace agreement to occur, there has to be a conversation with him. The Syrian people will determine his outcome and what happens with their government and their future.”
Gabbard also repeated a line that the Assad regime has long pushed – that there are no moderate rebels left in Syria.
“Every place that I went, every person that I spoke to, I asked this question to them [about arming moderate rebels], and without hesitation they said, ‘There are no moderate rebels,’ ‘Who are these moderate rebels that people keep speaking of?'” Gabbard said. “Regardless of the name of these groups, the strongest fighting force on the ground in Syria is al-Nusra or Al Qaeda and ISIS. That is a fact.”
Assad often argues that his opposition is composed entirely of extremists. This is a convenient argument for his regime – Western governments won’t support terrorists, so if Assad frames the Syrian civil war as a conflict between his government and terrorists who oppose him, he looks like the better option.
Gabbard ended her statement with a plea.
“The US must stop supporting terrorists who are destroying Syria and her people,” she said. “The US and other countries fueling this war must stop immediately. We must allow the Syrian people to try to recover from this terrible war.”
Syria, which has been thoroughly ravaged by a civil war that is nearing its sixth year, is generally inaccessible to Americans. Journalists who have reported from Syria in recent years have coordinated their trips with the Assad government and have had their travels carefully monitored and controlled.
Gabbard visited Damascus, Syria’s capital, while she was inside the country. She also visited Aleppo, a major city that has been the scene of intense fighting between the regime and rebels in recent months.
Gabbard is a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. She met with President-elect Donald Trump in late November to discuss how to avoid “the drumbeats of war” that may lead to US intervention in Syria, among other national-security concerns.
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Gabbard’s full statement is below:
“My visit to Syria has made it abundantly clear: Our counterproductive regime change war does not serve America’s interest, and it certainly isn’t in the interest of the Syrian people.”
“As I visited with people from across the country, and heard heartbreaking stories of how this war has devastated their lives, I was asked, ‘Why is the United States and its allies helping al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups try to take over Syria? Syria did not attack the United States. Al-Qaeda did.’ I had no answer.”
“I return to Washington, DC with even greater resolve to end our illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government. I call upon Congress and the new Administration to answer the pleas of the Syrian people immediately and support the Stop Arming Terrorists Act. We must stop directly and indirectly supporting terrorists – directly by providing weapons, training and logistical support to rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS; and indirectly through Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey, who, in turn, support these terrorist groups. We must end our war to overthrow the Syrian government and focus our attention on defeating al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
“From Iraq to Libya and now in Syria, the US has waged wars of regime change, each resulting in unimaginable suffering, devastating loss of life, and the strengthening of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
“Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it. I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering.”
“The US must stop supporting terrorists who are destroying Syria and her people. The US and other countries fueling this war must stop immediately. We must allow the Syrian people to try to recover from this terrible war.”
Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.