By Joyce Karam
In the first visit of its kind since 2012, US Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has traveled to Syria on a trip that has taken her so far to Aleppo and Damascus. According to Al-Watan, former Democratic Congressman from Ohio Dennis Kucinich is also on the trip, and the US delegation is staying at the Sheraton hotel in Damascus.
The move, according to Syrian-conflict watchers, indicates that President Bashar Assad “is no longer beyond the pale in US politics and policymaking.”
Gabbard, who made news in November with her meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, and was floated on his list for secretary of state, arrived Wednesday at Damascus airport, as reported by Syrian daily Al-Watan.
Gabbard and Kucinich were flown to war-torn Aleppo “without any Syrian officials.” There, they visited the city’s old citadel, two archbishoprics, and the eastern part, which was under siege by the regime until it was retaken last month.
The visit included a stop at a camp for displaced residents from Fuaa and Kefraya, which were captured by Syrian opposition, as well as Aleppo’s university hospital.
Al-Watan added that Gabbard and Kucinich had lunch at Wannes restaurant near the citadel.
Foreign Policy magazine said that Gabbard’s visit is for “fact-finding” purposes. Her spokesperson Emily Latimer said Gabbard described it to the magazine as such: “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.”
The rare visit did not involve any consultations from Gabbard with the Democratic Party leadership, according to Politico, and it solidifies the Congresswoman’s credentials for a softer position on Assad and against supporting the Syrian opposition.
Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, tells Arab News that “Gabbard has a long track record of advocating for a reconciliation with the Assad regime,” and that the trip fits “with her principles.”
Gabbard introduced the Stop Arming Terrorists Act to block any US arming of the opposition fighters, and voted against a House resolution last year calling brutal actions by the Syrian regime “war crimes.”
Just last week, Assad and his brother Maher were linked by a UN body to several chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo were labeled “war crimes” by a UN human rights chief. The death toll from the war has so far exceeded 400,000, with millions internally displaced or refugees outside Syria.
While Itani does not see Gabbard’s visit as relevant to Trump in any official capacity, saying the president-elect “has more senior advisers to consult with,” he adds that it is “symbolic for both the policy and Assad himself.”
The expert sees the visit as “a highly visible indication that Assad is no longer beyond the pale in US politics and policy” adding that “it moves him further into the role as a legitimate head of state, and a victim of wrongheaded Western policies.”
Gabbard’s stops and meetings with Christian bishops also “cast the trip in terms of protecting Christians, and this resonates in the US and reinforces Assad’s global narrative,” says Itani.
Although media reports have stayed mum on any official meetings Gabbard could be holding “for security reasons,” Itani says: “To walk into Syria as a politician and meet private individuals just like that? Impossible. There’s certainly official facilitation at the least.”