The Cable

Reps. Ed Royce and Eliot Engel dispatch aides near Syrian border

Last week, two leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), dispatched aides to Turkey to meet members of the Syrian opposition, The Cable has learned. The trip went from May 27 to June 3 and included visits to the border city of Gaziantep, the headquarters of the ...

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Activist of the group called "Freedom Convoy" wave a Syrian flag and chant slogans against president Bashar al-Assad during a gathering on January 12, 2012, near the Turkish-Syrian border city of Kilis, about 70 kilometres (43 miles) south of Gaziantep, on the road to Aleppo, Syria's second largest city. Hundreds of Syrian and international activists will try to cross into Syria from Turkey and Jordan today in a bid to take humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, various sources said the day before. If Syrian authorities refuse to let them cross, activists say they will stage a three-day sit-in protest on both sides of the border, with the participation of Syrian artists. AFP PHOTO / MUSTAFA OZER (Photo credit should read MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, two leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), dispatched aides to Turkey to meet members of the Syrian opposition, The Cable has learned.

The trip went from May 27 to June 3 and included visits to the border city of Gaziantep, the headquarters of the Western humanitarian assistance effort for the Syrian conflict, as well as Istanbul and Ankara. Going out on his own, the aide for Rep. Royce, Evan McMullin, met with senior members of the Free Syrian Army in a gathering coordinated by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a U.S. non-profit that advocates for a more assertive U.S. role in the conflict. 

Representatives of both offices declined to comment to The Cable.

The two lawmakers don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on the question of whether the United States should intervene more aggressively in the protracted civil war.

Engel, a Democrat, has carved out one of the most hawkish positions in Congress on Syria, being the first to introduce legislation authorizing lethal assistance for the rebels.

Royce, a Republican and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has been more reluctant, saying in January that the Obama administration should encourage Arab allies to give weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army, but stipulating that the United States doesn’t need to establish a no-fly zone or provide its own weapons. In late April, Royce reiterated his view that the United States should not arm opposition groups in Syria. "This is a fight that needs to be carried on by Syrians and the Free Syrian Army," he told MSNBC.

The staff who visited Syrian opposition members, McMullen and Engel aide Robert Marcus, declined to discuss how their bosses’ views were shaped by the debriefing from the trip. Word of their travel was mentioned Thursday in a conference call by Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. A congressional aide elaborated on the details of trip to The Cable on condition of anonymity.

During the call, Moustafa, who has extensive contacts with the Free Syrian Army, bemoaned recent regime gains in the strategically important border town of Qusayr, which fell to Hezbollah forces this week. "Hezbollah are much more adept fighters than the regime," he said. "It’s a miracle they [the rebel fighters] lasted as long as they did."

Moustafa also criticized the State Department for classifying the al Qaeda-aligned al-Nusrah Front as a terrorist group. "It was a mistake," he said. "The feeling among Syrian fighters was, ‘Why are you telling us what we can or can not do when you should be doing so much more to help us?’"

FSA commanders do not coordinate with the al-Nusrah Front, Moustafa said, but were irritated by Foggy Bottom’s decision because at least the militant group is helping to fight the regime. "Help us, then tell us the terms and conditions," he said.

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