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OPINION

Gabbard’s defense of Assad is why she can’t be president

By JOSH ROGIN | The Washington Post | Published: August 2, 2019

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, talks often about her January 2017 trip to Syria, when she met Bashar Assad, toured Aleppo after it had been reduced to rubble (by the Assad regime), and interviewed Syrian civilians and the regime-approved “opposition,” who unanimously told her Assad was a better option for Syria than the “terrorists.”

But Gabbard never talks about her other trip — to the Turkish-Syrian border with a group of lawmakers in June 2015, when she met with authentic opposition leaders, victims of Assad’s barrel bombs and members of the volunteer rescue brigade known as the White Helmets. Their stories, which don’t support Assad’s narrative, never make it into Gabbard’s speeches on the campaign trail.

Listening to Gabbard, one might think the United States initiated the Syrian conflict by arming terrorists for a regime-change war that has resulted in untold suffering. But Gabbard knows better. She has heard the testimony of children who have been maimed and orphaned by the actual murderers, the Assad regime, but she chooses to ignore them.

“Like the Russians, Iranians and the Assad regime, Tulsi sees the Syrian people struggling for dignity as terrorists, despite the facts,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, who was Gabbard’s guide on that 2015 trip.

That bias, combined with her long record of defending the Assad regime and parroting its propaganda, form the basis for the assertion Gabbard has “embraced and been an apologist for” Assad, as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Wednesday post-debate on CNN. Harris also said she doesn’t take Gabbard seriously.

But Gabbard’s candidacy should be taken very seriously — not because she has a significant chance of being president, but because her narrative on Syria is deeply incorrect, immoral and un-American. If it were adopted by her party and the country, it would lead the United States down a perilous moral and strategic path.

Among the Democratic candidates, there’s consensus that it’s time to end “forever wars.” But only Gabbard consistently struggles to admit that Assad is one of the worst war criminals in history. Only Gabbard asserts that the United States (not Assad) is responsible for the death and destruction in Syria, that the Russian airstrikes on civilians are to be praised, that efforts to protect Syrian civilians are wrongheaded and that the United States must side with Assad.

Responding to Harris, Gabbard called Assad’s atrocities “detractions,” before eventually saying she doesn’t dispute that he’s guilty of torture and murder. That’s a slight improvement from her previous protestations that there was not enough evidence. Gabbard then quickly accused President Donald Trump of aiding al-Qaida in Idlib.

“That does sound like a talking point of the Assad regime,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said. He could have just said she is wrong. Trump cut off aid to Idlib, and the Assad regime is now slaughtering innocents there with Russian help, in violation of their diplomatic agreements.

But blaming the United States for Assad and Russian war crimes is Gabbard’s pattern. That’s what she did during and after her 2017 trip to Syria, which she calls a diplomatic mission.

In fact, what she did was tour Aleppo after it had been decimated by Assad and Russia, and declared it a victory for peace. She made videos that regurgitated Assad propaganda from Assad-friendly Syrians and blamed the United States and the rebels for the destruction Assad’s regime wrought. She helped a mass murderer whitewash mass atrocities.

Now, Gabbard is running on that record. In a campaign ad in March, she actually blamed the United States for the death and destruction in Syria while showing a video of the Assad regime dropping barrel bombs (another war crime) on the Syrian city of Darayya.

Gabbard’s 2017 trip was financed and run by members of a Lebanese socialist-nationalist party that works closely with the Assad regime. (She repaid the money later after criticism.) On this trip, she met only with the regime-approved “opposition” and said they were against the rebellion.

“The Syrian people are constantly targeted by Russian and Assad regime propaganda and when there is a U.S. presidential candidate like Tulsi spewing these same lines, they feel only more disheartened and abandoned,” Moustafa said. Gabbard “is a reminder to them how inhumane the world has been about Syria.”

When opposing congressional legislation calling for humanitarian aid for the Syrian people and protection of civilians, Gabbard called it a thinly veiled regime-change effort using the “rationale of humanitarianism.” That’s an atrocious response to what State Department officials have called the worst machinery of death since the Nazis.

Other Democratic candidates have promised to end U.S. military adventurism without making excuses for a mass murderer. It’s neither progressive nor liberal to defend Assad, a fascist, totalitarian psychopath who can never peacefully preside over Syria after what he has done.

Gabbard’s plan to overtly side with Assad and Russia while they commit crimes against humanity would be a strategic disaster, a gift to the extremists and a betrayal of decades of U.S. commitments to stand up to mass atrocities. Democratic voters who believe in liberalism and truth must reject not only her candidacy but also her attempt to disguise moral bankruptcy as a progressive value.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security.

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