- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
In the span of an hour on Monday, one of the biggest foreign policy issues the incoming Trump administration will be forced to confront was exposed in two combative, and sharply contrasting, statements from Capitol Hill.
After becoming the first Democratic lawmaker under consideration for a cabinet post to meet with President-elect Donald Trump, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii outlined the one issue on which the two fully agree: ending the Obama administration’s attempts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. She also had harsh words for neocons who have escalated “the drumbeats of war” in seeking Assad’s removal.
Gabbard blasted U.S. involvement in Syria, which she warned would “drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government.” The lawmaker has long been an opponent of U.S. involvement in arming Syrian rebels, calling the American actions in Syria “illegal.”
She added that during Monday’s meeting, she and Trump “discussed my bill to end our country’s illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government, and the need to focus our precious resources on rebuilding our own country, and on defeating al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups who pose a threat to the American people.”
Trump has repeatedly indicated he might end American support for the thousands of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels and refocus efforts on fighting the Islamic State in eastern and central Syria. He has also said he would be open to cooperating with Russia — Assad’s largest benefactor — to defeat the terrorist group.
Just last week, Assad applauded Trump’s election, calling him a “natural ally” in the fight against terrorism. The Obama administration has long called for the ouster of Assad, and while most of Washington’s effort has been focused on backing local Arab and Kurd forces to beat back the Islamic State, there is an active CIA program that trains and equips some rebels to battle the regime’s forces.
Gabbard and Rep Austin Scott (R-Ga.) introduced a bill in November 2015 that would “bring an immediate end to the illegal, counter-productive war to overthrow the Syrian government,” according to a statement released by the lawmakers.
Syrian and Russian warplanes have been bombarding rebels and civilians alike for the past year. They have made little effort to separate the two groups, especially in places like the eastern half of Aleppo, where about 275,000 people are without medical care or resupply of food.
Following Gabbard’s statement, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tore into the Obama administration for standing by as the “Syrian regime and Russian forces continue their brutal assault on Aleppo.”
Citing months of fruitless negotiations with Moscow to establish a ceasefire, the two senators added, “Putin and Assad will not do what we ask of them out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of concern for our interests, or the suffering of others. They do not want to broker peace. They want to win a war. And American inaction is helping them to do it.”
Last month, McCain wrote an op-ed calling for “safe zones” in Syria where civilians would be protected by U.S. airpower, and demanded that Washington issue an “ultimatum” to Assad: “stop flying or lose your aircraft.” Russian planes should also be warned that they assume a “greater risk” if they continue to bomb civilian targets.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone last week and agreed “to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues,” according to a statement from the Kremlin.
Gabbard bucked her party’s establishment earlier this year by backing Sen. Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and was one of only 47 Democrats who voted in favor of a Republican-sponsored bill requiring refugees from Iraq and Syria to undergo FBI background checks. She also declined to sign a letter earlier this month condemning Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his top Oval Office advisor. The letter was signed by 169 Democrats.
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