Democratic Rep. Gabbard Makes Secret Trip to Syria

The Hawaii lawmaker, who has bucked both parties on the issue of Syria, met with government officials on a "fact-finding" mission.

US Representative Tulsi Gabbard speaks during Day 2 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 26, 2016. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
US Representative Tulsi Gabbard speaks during Day 2 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 26, 2016. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has just departed war-torn Damascus following what her aides described as a “fact-finding” mission to work toward ending the nearly six-year conflict in Syria.

Congressional travel to the devastated country is exceedingly rare, especially as fighting continues in direct violation of a recent cease-fire agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia. This week, Syrian government forces backed by Lebanese militants attempted to recapture a rebel-controlled area near Damascus that includes a pumping station that supplies most of the city’s water.

Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran who drew speculation about an appointment in the Trump administration after she met privately with the president-elect in November, has frequently bucked her party and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment in debates over the Syrian conflict.

For years, she has opposed a U.S. policy of regime change and says the country will become more unstable and dangerous if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ousted.

In describing the purpose of the trip, Gabbard spokeswoman Emily Latimer said she “felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups, including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees, and government and community leaders.”

This month, she introduced the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would prohibit the U.S. government from providing funding and weapons to Sunni militant groups working to overthrow the Assad regime, such as the Levant Front, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and al Qaeda.

In interviews, she has called for the United States to abandon its goal of removing Assad and focus on eliminating the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

“Gabbard has long been committed to peace and ending counterproductive, interventionist wars,” her spokeswoman told Foreign Policy.

When asked if Gabbard met with Assad, the strongman many blame for a conflict that has killed 400,000 and displaced millions, Latimer declined to comment, citing security and logistical concerns.

To her critics, Gabbard is an apologist to a regime that has committed countless war crimes and destabilized the greater Middle East. To her supporters, she’s a lonely voice of sanity against a growing tide of bipartisan interventionism that risks bogging down the United States in another conflict in the Middle East.

She has repeatedly compared Assad to Muammar al-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, brutal dictators who fell prey to Western intervention in conflicts that later became unpopular.

“I don’t think Assad should be removed,” Gabbard told CNN. “If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al Qaeda, al Nusra — these Islamic extremist groups will walk straight in and take over all of Syria. … They will be even stronger.”

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders have maintained that any resolution to the conflict in Syria must result in Assad’s departure. But Gabbard’s views have found support from Trump, who has long maintained that the Syrian opposition has been infiltrated by Islamic extremists and cannot be trusted.

Stephen Bannon, Trump’s top strategist, is reportedly fond of Gabbard for her views on extremism and ability to channel leftist populist sentiment.

After Gabbard met with Trump in November she issued a statement saying the president-elect “asked me to meet with him about our current policies regarding Syria, our fight against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.”

“Where I disagree with President-elect Trump on issues, I will not hesitate to express that disagreement,” she added. “However, I believe we can disagree, even strongly, but still come together on issues that matter to the American people and affect their daily lives.”

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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