Immediately after touching down in Damascus, Syria, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was off to an hour and a half meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad — a meeting she described as impromptu upon her return to the United States last month — according to travel forms she filed on Wednesday with the U.S. House Ethics Committee.
Assad has been accused of war crimes and human rights violations during a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half the country. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. provided aid to rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. Gabbard has opposed efforts to oust the leader, arguing that Islamic terrorist groups would fill the power void.
Gabbard then spent an hour with Assad’s wife before meeting with a Muslim cleric and Assad loyalist who in 2011 warned western countries against military intervention in Syria and threatened to activate suicide bombers in the United States if it attacked Syria.
“I say to all of Europe, I say to America, we will set up suicide bombers who are now in your countries if you bomb Syria or Lebanon,” Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, a state-appointed cleric, said in a speech reported by various media outlets, including CBS News. “From now on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
That meeting, which included a visit to a historic mosque, lasted an hour.
Gabbard told the Honolulu-Star Advertiser in response to questions about the meetings she thought it was important to meet with adversaries if there is any chance that it will bring about peace. But details of the meetings are likely to inflame critics who have argued that the congresswoman shouldn’t have met with the Assad administration. Some have claimed that, wittingly or not, she was used as a mouthpiece for Assad war propaganda — a claim Gabbard has vigorously denied. The trip’s organizers have ties to a pro-Assad political party.
Asked why she met with the Muslim cleric who had threatened the U.S. with suicide bombers, Gabbard said in a statement that she thought it was important to meet with people on all sides of the conflict.
“We should be ready to follow the examples of Representative Patsy Mink, President Dwight Eisenhower, and our other leaders who were always willing to meet with adversaries if there is a possibility it would bring us closer to peace,” she said by email. “Patsy Mink met with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leaders, despite the fact that they were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans. President Eisenhower met with Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, even though Khrushchev had threatened the United States with nuclear annihilation, exclaiming, ‘We will bury you! We will bury you!’”
She continued, “Throughout my trip to Syria and Lebanon, I took the opportunity to meet with everyone I could, even those I don’t agree with, to work toward a path to peace for Syria. I felt it was important to hear from Christian and Muslim leaders alike, and this includes the Grand Mufti, the top Muslim leader in Syria. You do not make peace by only talking to friends and allies.”
The travel reports, which are required to be filed by members of the House within 15 days of returning from a foreign trip, provide the greatest detail so far of Gabbard’s increasingly controversial trips to Syria and Lebanon last month.
The reports provide a detailed itinerary of Gabbard’s meetings while in the Middle East. The documents also show that the proposed itinerary that Gabbard filed with the Ethics Committee as part of the approval process was radically different than what her schedule ended up being once she landed in Lebanon on Jan. 15.
Her proposed trip itinerary didn’t include meetings with Assad or Hassoun, for example. However, she ended up meeting with Assad twice and spending more days in Syria than initially scheduled.
Gabbard and her husband arrived in Beirut at 7 p.m. on Jan. 15 and within an hour went to the Syrian embassy for visas so her delegation could travel to Syria the next morning, according to her travel reports.
The itinerary filed with the Ethics Committee before her trip had her scheduled to be in Lebanon until Jan. 18.
Gabbard told reporters after her return from the region that she had “no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it.”
Asked for more clarification about how the meeting came about, Erika Tsuji, a spokeswoman for Gabbard, told the Star-Advertiser on Wednesday that when the congresswoman arrived in Beirut, she received an invitation to meet with Assad and his wife.
The change in plans apparently required Gabbard to quickly reschedule or cancel meetings with numerous top government officials in Lebanon, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri and former President Emile Lahoud, that were scheduled for the next day.
Tsuji said Gabbard discussed a variety of topics with Assad, “including how to ensure passage for Syrian refugees to return to Syria, the impact of sanctions, reconstruction of Syria, and his response to those who say he is a war criminal.”
Gabbard met again with Assad on Jan. 18 for a half hour, following an hourlong meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
The travel documents also show that Gabbard and her entourage kept up a hectic schedule throughout the trip, meeting with top government officials, patients at hospitals, business leaders, church leaders and people who say they were tortured by Islamic extremist groups.
Tsuji said Gabbard did not relay any messages from the Trump administration.
Tsuji also said in response to questions that Gabbard had received security from the governments of Syria and Lebanon “as is normal protocol for visiting dignitaries of a foreign country.”
Gabbard had also planned a two-hour news conference with local and international media at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus during the middle of her trip, according to her proposed itinerary, but that apparently didn’t happen. Tsuji said the security was high given the ongoing war and strongholds of ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria.