WASHINGTON — After a controversial meeting with Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Syria, US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is doubling down.
In a Honolulu Star-Advertiser opinion piece published Thursday, Gabbard, D-Hawaii, ripped the US government's regime-change strategy in Syria and vowed to fight against it.
"For years, the U.S. government has been directly and indirectly supporting allies and partners of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS with money, weapons, and intelligence in their fight to overthrow the Syrian government," Gabbard said in the op-ed, published days after a weeklong visit to Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
"I return to D.C. this week with even greater resolve to end this illegal and counterproductive war," she said.
A member of the House Armed Services Committee and veteran of the Iraq War, Gabbard has been seen as a key but problematic Democratic national security voice. She broke with the Obama administration and sponsored legislation to halt US weapons, training and logistical support to rebel groups she links to al-Qaida and ISIS.
"The reality is ... every place that I went, every person that I spoke to, I asked this question to them, and without hesitation, they said: 'There are no moderate rebels. Who are these moderate rebels that people keep speaking of,' " Gabbard said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.
"Regardless of the name of these groups, the strongest fighting force on the ground in Syria is al-Nusra, or al-Qaida and ISIS. That is a fact," Gabbard said.
Gabbard also defended her meeting with Assad, whose forces are accused of killing thousands, displacing millions and using chemical weapons during the five-year Syrian civil war.
Gabbard said she initially did not plan to meet with Assad.
"Whatever you think about President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria. 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," Gabbard said.
According to Gabbard's office, the trip was sponsored by the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services and not taxpayer funded. She said it was approved by the House Ethics Committee, as required by House rules.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.