TheHill.com - Strong U.S. leadership needed in Syria, not political stunts like Gabbard's visit

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Washington, January 27, 2017 | comments

As elected officials, we are representatives of our constituents here in Congress – we consider their interests and their voices directly. When we travel overseas, outside these borders, we are representatives of the United States and our federal government. I have traveled on official business during my time in Congress, always keeping in mind the magnitude of America’s reputation and relationships around the world. When I heard that my colleague, and fellow war veteran, went on a secret, unsanctioned trip to war-torn Syria, I was alarmed. When I found out that this colleague met with the ‘Butcher of Damascus,’ I was disgusted.

There’s really no other way to say it, but what my colleague Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) did is reprehensible and cannot be justified. Her actions have put our nation’s reputation and foreign policy concerns at high risk, and her meeting could severely interfere with our relationships in the Middle East and around the world. Acting as a representative without the official authority is deceitful, and misrepresents the interests of the United States.

Looking at the situation in Syria, the ongoing atrocities by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies continue to frighten and shock the global community. The barrages from Syrian, Iranian and Russian artillery exemplify the true horror of this conflict. Nearly 500,000 Syrians have died with more than 50,000 of them being children, while cities like Aleppo have been nearly wiped off the map.

The United States, under the Obama administration, continually failed to act against Assad and his cronies by not enforcing the so-called ‘red line’ – effectively exacerbating the crisis in the Middle East, and the crisis we face from the rise of radical Islamic terrorism. It is deeply troubling that Congresswoman Gabbard believes Assad is someone we can work with in our fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS when Assad is the incubator of ISIS. 

Assad played a principal role in the rise of extremism and violence. Under his watch, the cancer of ISIS continued to grow from the anarchy and lawlessness that Assad’s rampage caused throughout the country.  After he was unable to control ISIS, he resorted to bombing his own people to regain control of the region, falsely claiming he was going after the terrorists.

The innocent people of Syria do not want a future that includes Bashar al-Assad.  Despite the Russian talking points that Congresswoman Gabbard has been using to claim ‘there are no moderates in Syria,’ I can personally attest otherwise.

I have been to the refugee camps in Turkey and Iraq, on a government approved Congressional Delegation trip. I have spoken to the victims of Assad’s brutality and I can tell you firsthand, all they want is to live their lives in peace. They do not want to walk around with the constant fear of being barrel-bombed by Assad’s forces, cut down by Russian or Iranian artillery strikes, or worse.  I have spoken with a doctor from Chicago who volunteered in Aleppo’s hospitals with the Syrian American Medical Society.  His stories and photos are devastating, but they drive me to speak out against Assad’s war crimes.  I have met with the Syrian White Helmets and heard countless stories of their efforts to save innocent civilians while under attack.

One of these rescue stories made international headlines in August when a video emerged of a young Syrian boy named Omran. Having just been pulled from the rubble, Omran is seen sitting alone in an ambulance, dazed and bloodied from the shock of a Syrian-Russian airstrike on his home in Aleppo. Even more tragically, we learned Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, was killed in that same strike.  While Omran became a symbol of the tragedy unfolding in Aleppo and throughout Syria, we must remember that his story is the story of so many Syrian children.  Countless lives destroyed and displaced, and an entire generation of Syrian children who could have been police officers, teachers, or doctors, but whose lives were cut short by barrel bombs and airstrikes.

My heart continues to break every day for the people of Syria and my anger rises knowing that real lives are being cut short despite America’s capacity to help.  When Tulsi Gabbard met with Assad, did she think about those children? Did she think about the innocent lives that were taken at the hands of the man she met with?  Did she think about the implications her meeting would have on the remaining Syrians still in danger of his barbaric attacks?  I don’t have those answers, but what I do know is this: by meeting with Assad as a representative of the United States, Tulsi Gabbard legitimized his presidency, his leadership over Syria, and in turn, legitimized his genocide.

We need to find ways to help the people of Syria. We cannot work with their butcher or his cronies in Russia or Iran. Action in Syria can be as simple as employing humanitarian safe zones, which President Trump has advocated, to allow Syrian refugees to return home without fear of death or destruction.  We must also impose costs on Assad and his allies for the war crimes and genocide they’ve committed. 

The time for strong U.S. action and leadership is now.  Political stunts like Congresswoman Gabbard’s will not bring an end to the conflict in Syria or make the people of Syria – or the people of this country – safer in the long run. Assad and his allies may expand their control in Syria and shut down freedom, but the people will never forget the atrocities and genocide. Terrorism will continue to fester, and it will be remembered that the world sat back and watched. I believe America has the power to defeat Assad and the moral obligation to ensure a future for Syria, a more secure environment for Europe, and greater safety for the United States in the generational fight we face against terror. 

The original op-ed can be viewed on The Hill's website here: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/316616-strong-us-leadership-needed-in-syria-not-political-stunts
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