A high-profile Democratic congresswoman says she met with Assad on her secret trip to Syria

A high-profile Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii said she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a secret “fact-finding” trip she took to the country recently.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, told CNN on Wednesday that when she went to the country earlier this month she initially hadn’t planned on meeting with Assad. But when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Gabbard if she met with the authoritarian ruler, she answered, “I did.”

“My reason for going to visit Syria was really because of the suffering of the Syrian people that has been weighing heavily on my heart,” she said. “I wanted to see if there was in some small way that I could express the love and the ‘aloha’ and the care that the American people have for the people of Syria and to see firsthand what was happening there.”

Gabbard was in Syria for four days.

Obama administration officials have repeatedly insisted that Assad, who has been accused of massacring his own people, must step down. But the US hasn’t directly intervened to bring an end to his brutal rule.

Gabbard has been a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s calls for Assad to relinquish power.

“When the opportunity arose to meet with [Assad], I did so because I felt it’s important that if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people, about their suffering, then we’ve got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there’s a possibility that we could achieve peace,” Gabbard said. “And that’s exactly what we’ve talked about.”

When Tapper noted the crimes Assad has been accused of, Gabbard defended her choice to meet with him.

“Whatever you think about President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria,” she said. “In order for any peace agreement, in order for any possibility of a viable peace agreement to occur, there has to be a conversation with him. The Syrian people will determine his outcome and what happens with their government and their future.”

Gabbard also repeated a line that the Assad regime has long pushed — that there are no moderate rebels left in Syria.

“Every place that I went, every person that I spoke to, I asked this question to them [about arming moderate rebels], and without hesitation they said, ‘There are no moderate rebels,’ ‘Who are these moderate rebels that people keep speaking of?'” Gabbard said. “Regardless of the name of these groups, the strongest fighting force on the ground in Syria is al-Nusra or Al Qaeda and ISIS. That is a fact.”

Assad often argues that his opposition is composed entirely of extremists. This is a convenient argument for his regime — Western governments won’t support terrorists, so if Assad frames the Syrian civil war as a conflict between his government and terrorists who oppose him, he looks like the better option.

Syria, which has been thoroughly ravaged by a civil war that is nearing its sixth year, is generally inaccessible to Americans. Journalists who have reported from Syria in recent years have coordinated their trips with the Assad government and have had their travels carefully monitored and controlled.

Gabbard visited Damascus, Syria’s capital, while she was inside the country.

Gabbard is a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. She met with President-elect Donald Trump in late November to discuss how to avoid “the drumbeats of war” that may lead to US intervention in Syria, among other national-security concerns.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard met with Assad in Syria, she explains to @jaketapper https://t.co/5icnGfi3Tf https://t.co/gjVYuS4pas
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) January 25, 2017

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