BEIRUT — Three Republican members of the US Congress made a brief trip to opposition-held northwest Syria on Sunday in the first known visit to the war-torn country by a US lawmaker in six years. . They urged the Biden administration and its regional partners to keep up the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The roughly hour-long shutdown was a signal of significant support on Capitol Hill for the opposition in Syria’s long-running civil war.
U.S. Representative French Hill of Arkansas, one of three lawmakers, told The Associated Press by phone after leaving Syria that the trip was the latest of his many trips to the region this summer to lobby the US government and its Arab allies to continue pushing for a deal. political resolution of the war.
Hill said his message was on behalf of “those in Syria who want to have their own representative government.”
The conflict began in 2011 after Assad launched a campaign to crush what began as a peaceful uprising against his family’s autocratic rule. Assad retained power despite the uprising, largely thanks to the armed intervention of his allies Russia and Iran. But the conflict divided the country, killed at least 300,000 civilians and displaced half of the 23 million pre-war inhabitants.
The trip comes at a time when Middle Eastern leaders have begun to rebuild their relationship with Assad’s government. In doing so, Arab leaders are making a sharp break with the United States, which is working to keep Assad isolated in the face of government abuses that the United Nations says include the repeated use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
The UN estimates that 300,000 Syrian civilians died in the first ten years of the conflict.
Hill and fellow lawmakers Ben Cline of Virginia and Scott Fitzgerald of Wisconsin entered Syria early Sunday from Turkey via the Bab al-Salama border crossing in northern Aleppo province.
They were hosted by orphans who attend Wisdom House, a school for orphans that is a project of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a US-based Syrian opposition organization that facilitated the trip for lawmakers.
The voters of Hill in Arkansas were the school’s major donors. “It was an emotional day for me to see these children holding up pictures of their parents murdered by the Assad regime, receiving a hug and a kiss from them,” he said.
The children were students at Wisdom House, a school for orphans that is a project of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a US-based Syrian opposition organization that facilitated the trip for lawmakers. The voters of Hill in Arkansas were the school’s major donors.
MPs met with opposition leaders and aid organisations, including Raed Saleh, leader of the White Helmets, a volunteer first responder group known for extracting civilians from buildings razed by shelling.
Saleh spoke to lawmakers about the political status of the conflict in Syria and the continuation of humanitarian efforts for the victims of the earthquake earlier this year in Turkey and Syria, the White Helmets said on X, the old Twitter site.
For security reasons, the trip has not been publicly announced. Hill spoke from neighboring Turkey, where members of Congress also held a series of meetings.
The last known trip by a US lawmaker to Syria was in 2017, when Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, visited US forces stationed in the Kurdish region of northeast Syria. McCain had previously visited Syria and met with armed opposition fighters.
Also in 2017, US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat of Hawaii, visited Damascus, the capital, and met with Assad, a move that was widely criticized at the time.
Since the start of the uprising that turned into a civil war in Syria, the US government has backed the opposition and imposed sanctions on the Assad government and its associates over human rights concerns. Washington has made the restoration of relations with Damascus conditional on progress towards a political solution to this 12-year-old conflict.
A growing number of Arab leaders are working to end their own isolation from Assad, in line with arguments that engagement is the best way to deal with the flow of refugees, illegal drugs and other problems in the world. region from Syria. The 22-member Arab League recently reinstated Syria as a member after severing ties earlier in the Syrian war.
Hill said he had engaged in discussions with Middle Eastern governments on several occasions over the past three months about “what are the ramifications of the Arab League admitting Syria into the League, without asking anything?” to Assad in return in terms of greater political freedoms and an end to the conflict. rights violations.
Hill is also pushing for the United States and Arab countries to press Assad harder over Syria’s status as the world’s top trafficker of Captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine.
Late last year, Congress passed a mandate allowing the United States to target Captagon smuggling in the Middle East, and President Joe Biden signed it into law.
Hill accused Biden of not doing enough to pressure Assad to enact political reforms and stop the flow of the illegal drug, a major source of revenue for the Assad government.
“I think what Syria needs, and the same thing the United States needs, is American leadership,” Hill said.
Neither the State Department nor the White House had immediate comment on the Republican lawmakers’ trip.
Control of northwestern Syria is largely shared between Turkish-backed opposition groups and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group originally founded as an offshoot of al-Qaida and designated as a terrorist organization by United States. In recent years, the group’s leaders have attempted to publicly distance themselves from their al-Qaeda origins.
Turkish-backed opposition groups regularly clash with Kurdish forces based in northeast Syria, allies of the United States in the fight against Islamic State.