The Syrian civil war is bloody meat-grinder. Since 2011, when it was born out the hope and democratic promise of the Arab Spring, the war has killed 470,000 people, according to international humanitarian observers. In mid-2016, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, a million people inside Syria were living in dangerous besieged areas, facing starvation, disease and worse. At the same, more than six million Syrians were displaced within their own country, and nearly five million were trying to find refuge in another nation entirely. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that more than 100,000 Syrians have vanished since the war began–many swallowed by secret prisons where torture is rampant.
Multiple factions, including the Islamic State and an Al Qaeda affiliate, are fighting the brutal regime headed by dictator Bashar al-Assad. Russia and the United States are involved too, using airstrikes to bomb “terrorists”–who they actually are is anyone’s guess.
But the majority of the violence against the Syrian people themselves though comes straight from Assad. Here are a few examples from the 2017 World Report, put out by the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch:
- “Syrian and Russian airstrikes continued to target, or indiscriminately strike civilian areas, including homes, markets, schools, and hospitals, using wide-area explosives, barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and flammable incendiary weapons.”
- “Government forces used at least 13 types of internationally banned cluster munitions in over 400 attacks on opposition-held areas between July 2012 to August 2016, killing and injuring civilians, including children.”
- “Government forces, and their allies, also increasingly resorted to the use of incendiary weapons, with at least 18 documented attacks on opposition-held areas in Aleppo and Idlib between June 5 and August 10.”
- “Government forces also continued using toxic chemicals in several barrel bomb attacks in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs with toxic chemicals on residential neighborhoods in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo city on August 10 and September 6.”
In mid-January, Hawaii’s own Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D–2nd District, stepped into this maelstrom of violence and horror with a secretive visit to Syria and Lebanon (former Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio traveled with her, as did Gabbard’s husband Abraham Williams, who took the official photographs of the trip). From Jan. 14-22, Gabbard was touring Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut. Sure, she didn’t attend Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 22, but she also skipped the Women’s Marches in Washington and around the country. Most controversial of all, Gabbard also agreed to meet with Assad himself–a huge gift to the dictator most responsible for the barbarism in Syria.
“Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it,” Gabbard said in a Jan. 25 statement. “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 next day, Gabbard said something even more remarkable to Greta van Susteren on MSNBC. “I’ve been very worried and have carried with a heavy heart what has been happening there,” Gabbard told van Susteren. “The suffering of the Syrian people, and I wanted to go there for myself, to see if I could in some small way convey the love, the care and the ‘Aloha’ of the people of Hawaii, the people of our country, to the Syrian people.”
Reaction to Gabbard’s trip has been, well, spirited. “Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has turned into a stooge for Syria’s dictator,” screamed a Jan. 26 headline on Daily Kos, a left-wing weblog.. “Who will primary her?” (There’s no provision in Hawaii’s Constitution that allows for recalling elected officials.)
Others had a remarkably different take. “Tulsi Gabbard is brave and the kind of person we need in the diplomatic corps,” the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer tweeted on Jan. 27 (Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist who’s long been friendly to white nationalists, is also a big fan of Gabbard).
The next day, Gabbard responded to Spencer, though with considerably less fury than you might have hoped. “Our movement is one of love, aloha, and inclusivity–regardless of race or religion,” she tweeted on Jan. 28. “Your racist and hateful views don’t align with ours.”
On Jan. 26, I submitted a list of questions to Gabbard’s office concerning the meeting with Assad–who was in the room with her, what did they discuss, and so forth. I also listed six acts of brutality the Assad regime committed against the Syrian people listed in the Human Rights Watch report, and asked if Gabbard had discussed any of these incidents with Assad. Though Gabbard’s press aide asked for my deadline (end of the day on Monday, Jan. 30), I never received a response to any of my questions.
Of course, Gabbard has always been something of a maverick within the Democratic Party. Though she often found the time to criticize President Barack Obama–especially for his authorizing military strikes in Syria–she has yet to say or publish anything critical of President Donald Trump.
Back in 2015, Gabbard also voted for the Republican-sponsored bill HR 4038, which would have required refugees from Syria and Iraq trying to come to the U.S. to get background checks from the FBI. The bill was needless and insulting–refugees coming to the U.S. are already subject to considerable criminal and background checks.
And it’s not like there are hordes of refugees from Syria here anyway. According to the Washington, DC-based think tank Migration Policy Institute, of the millions of Syrians who have fled their country since the war began. just 18,007 resettled in the U.S. between Oct. 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2016.
And it’s unlikely there will be any more. On Jan. 27–Holocaust Remembrance Day, of course–Trump signed an executive order all but banning refugees (unless they’re Christian) from Syria and six other Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S.
“We should not ban refugees from our country,” Gabbard tweeted on Jan. 26. “But we must address the root cause that is making people flee their homes–regime-change wars.”
The not-very subtle implication here is that all these refugees are fleeing Syria because we’re trying to topple Assad. While it was probably at least an unstated goal of the Obama Administration to get rid of Assad, that’s not what has caused the majority of violence, as the recent Human Rights Watch report makes clear (and just to be precise–the HRW report also catalogues violence committed by anti-Assad regime factions and terrorists as well).
During her trip to Syria, Gabbard said met with many people who expressed their outrage at–wait for it–the United States.
“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,’” she said in a Jan. 25 news release from her office. “I had no answer.”
The many questions surrounding exactly who funded Gabbard’s trip to Syria–and why–cast considerable doubt on the sincerity of those Gabbard spoke with. At the very least, Gabbard’s group was unquestionably attended by an official government minder, making actual honest dialogue with residents caught in a civil war all but impossible.
But there’s evidence Assad’s government had even more control over Gabbard’s visit. One of those who traveled with with Gabbard was Bassam Khawam–a “longtime peace advocate,” according to Gabbard. In fact, according to this Jan. 29 Washington Post story, Khawam is a lobbyist for Assad.
“This guy has been lobbying on behalf of Bashar Assad in the U.S. even before there was a revolution, and we are deeply troubled he would try to help a war criminal build relationships with sitting members of Congress,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, director of government relations for the nongovernmental organization Syrian American Council, in the Post.
Gabbard said the trip was organized and paid for by the Ohio office of the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS). But there are questions as to whether this office actually exists.
AACCESS-Ohio apparently has an office and a working phone (though I called the office on Jan. 26 and left a message with the guy answering the phone, asking to speak to someone there about Gabbard’s trip, no one returned my call), but little else. They have no web presence, and since 2007, they apparently haven’t filed tax returns. “No return required as revenue was less than $25,000,” reads a handwritten note scrawled on the bottom of the 2006 return, which though signed had no dollar amounts listed anywhere on the form.
According to the Jan. 29 Post story, the office itself doesn’t exist.
“I can assure you [Khawam] has never been an employee of the organization and he is not at all affiliated with ACCESS,” Rana Taylor, director of communications for the entire ACCESS organization, told the Post. “They don’t have any type of structure or governing body. They are non-functioning, not active as a member in any way.”
On Jan. 31, with both The Washington Post and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser publishing increasingly aggressive stories about who exactly funded Gabbard’s trip, Gabbard announced that she would pay for the trip out of her own pocket.
“Though the trip has met every requirement of the House Ethics Committee, the congresswoman has decided to reimburse AACCESS-Ohio for the trip because it has become a distraction from the important issue at hand—do the American people want their taxpayer dollars to continue to be used in support of militant groups working hand-in-hand with al-Qaeda and ISIS in the effort to overthrow the Syrian government?” stated a Jan. 31 news release from Gabbard’s office. “Contrary to baseless claims in the media, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is beholden to no one in the region, her views on the situation are her own, and her determination to seek peace is beyond question.”
“Previously we didn’t get support in this form, we would get light weapons and ammunition,” SDF spokesperson Talal Silo said in the Reuters story. “There are signs of full support from the new American leadership–more than before–for our forces.”
Though Gabbard often criticized the Obama Administration for its military support of Syrian rebels, she has yet to say anything about this new escalation.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with opposing U.S. military involvement in the Syrian war. In fact, it was probably always a bad idea to do so–civil wars are inherently messy, with shifting alliances and nefarious factions, and the Syrian war is incredibly complex and dangerous. Indeed, according to a Jan. 19 story in the Wall Street Journal(hardly a drum-beater for the left), though Assad has long said his regime is at war with ISIS, he’s actually buying oil and gas from ISIS, the revenues of which are helping to keep the Islamic State alive.
U.S. airstrikes have probably killed some bad terrorists, but they’ve also killed civilians, which tends to inspire the growth of more rebels and terrorists. The U.S. does not have a solid track record in terms of successful interventions in these types of wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, to name a few), so steering clear of the fighting is undoubtedly a smart policy.
For some time now, Gabbard has been pushing HR 608–the “Stop Arming Terrorists Act.” The bill would “would prohibit U.S. government funds from being used to directly or indirectly support terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS or those working with them,” according to a press statement released by her office. It’s a bill that, given the frightful record of successive U.S. administrations’ support for bloodthirsty regimes and terrorist groups during the 20th century, is hard to oppose.
“As veterans we took an oath to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States. The threat to the Constitution comes not from Russia, China or ISIL but from within the walls of Washington D.C. where the Congress and the Executive branch have enmeshed the country in ongoing unnecessary, illegal and unconstitutional wars,” said Barry Ladendorf, the president of Veterans for Peace, in a Jan. 27 news release sent out by Gabbard’s office. “As Veterans For Peace we seek to restrain our government from intervening, overtly or covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations. Certainly, the U.S. government should not be supporting regime change wars nor directly or indirectly supporting known terrorist organizations, proxy groups and their allies to violently overthrow established governments.”
That being said, Gabbard’s insinuations that the Syrian war exists because of the U.S., and her utter refusal to denounce the actions of Assad’s regime and his Russian allies, is bogus. Indeed, the American intervention in Syria pales before the onslaught caused by the Assad regime. This is hardly surprising, since Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was a butcher too, though on a smaller scale. In 1982, he ordered government forces to smash the Syrian city of Hama–a hotbed of opposition to his regime. The resulting bombardment, air strikes and armored invasion led to something between 10,000 and 40,000 dead (precise figures are impossible to get due to Syria not being anything remotely resembling an open, democratic state).
While Gabbard could possibly make the case that we’re prolonging the war–propping up anti-regime forces that would otherwise have been ground under by the Syrian government, the foundation of that argument is that Assad needs to win the war. And that’s morally bankrupt.
This is the problem with the world we live in. Democracy and human rights in the U.S. and around the world are crumbling in the face of authoritarian pressures. In much of the world–Russia, Britain, Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines and, of course, the United States–ultra-nationalist forces are trying to suppress speech, brutalize minority populations and generally just smash what remains of the rule of law.
The Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad is at the forefront of these efforts. Yes, by all means–denounce the killings by ISIS or the Islamic State or whatever you want to call it, but there’s no need to grant a dictator like Assad any scrap of legitimacy. In other words, you can oppose U.S. military involvement in Syria and still denounce Assad as a brutal dictator. You can do both quite easily and effectively.
This is why organizations like Human Rights Watch are so valuable. Reading through the Syria chapter of their new World Report is instructive because it shows, in stark detail, the crimes and injustices of every faction in Syria. It’s not selective, because they’re not trying to favor any one regime over another (hell, the HRW spokespeople wouldn’t even comment for this story).
Right now, with human rights and democratic norms under assault in the U.S. and around the world, we need legislators who resist authoritarian force, not collaborate with it. We need our elected officials to stand up for the rule of law and civil liberties, not legitimize bloodthirsty dictators. With Trump stomping around the White House like a greasy fascist dictator, signing racist, anti-Muslim executive orders on immigration and then firing public officials who refuse to carry out those orders because courts have ordered them halted, we need officials willing to denounce authoritarians more than ever.
Gabbard’s trip to Syria and her meet-and-greet with Assad sent precisely the wrong message to her constituents in Hawaii, the American people and everyone around the world who still (for whatever reason) looks to the United States as a champion of democracy. Instead, she’s told the world that a “Democratic” U.S. legislator would rather appease a butcher than stand up for justice. She has bestowed legitimacy and honor on a regime that deserves only a war crimes tribunal.
If ever there was a time when “Democrats” like Gabbard needed a refresher course in what democracy actually was, it’s now.
Photo of Rep. Gabbard and Syrian religious leaders: Abraham Williams
Cover design: Darris Hurst