US politician says she met Assad on secret Syria trip
A US congresswoman who made a recent secret trip to war-torn Syria said on Wednesday that she met with President Bashar al-Assad as part of her effort to end the almost six-year-long conflict.
House Democrat Tulsi Gabbard this month travelled to Damascus and the decimated city of Aleppo on a fact-finding mission, where she met with refugees, Syrian opposition leaders and relatives of fighters on both sides of the divide, in addition to Assad.
"Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it," Gabbard said in a statement.
"I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there's a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering."
'Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it' - Tulsi Gabbard
In an interview on CNN, she added: "Whatever you think about President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria. In order for any possibility of a viable peace agreement to occur, there has to be a conversation with him."
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, had no advance knowledge of the trip. Gabbard's initiative was paid for and sponsored by the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services-Ohio.
Gabbard, 35, was a member of the Hawaii National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2005.
Two weeks after Donald Trump won the 8 November election, she met with him to discuss Syria, raising speculation that he might consider her for a position at the Pentagon or State Department.
Gabbard, who often clashes with her own party on issues related to Syria, has long opposed a US policy of regime change there, arguing that the country would descend further into chaos should Assad be ousted.
"We must stop directly and indirectly supporting terrorists - directly by providing weapons, training and logistical support to rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS; and indirectly through Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey, who in turn support these terrorist groups," she said.
Earlier on Wednesday, a draft of a Trump executive order published by Reuters revealed that the US president plans on establishing safe zones for civilians in Syria.
"The Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defence, is directed within 90 days of the date of this order to produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement," the draft order said.
Trump has repeatedly said his first priority in Syria is defeating the Islamic State group.
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