24.02.2024

Members of US Congress make a rare visit to opposition-held northwest Syria

Three members of the U.S. Congress made a brief visit Sunday to opposition-held northwest Syria in what was the first known trip to the war-torn country by American lawmakers in six years.

U.S. Reps. Ben Cline of Virginia, French Hill of Arkansas and Scott Fitzgerald of Wisconsin, all Republicans, entered Syria from Turkey via the Bab al-Salama crossing in northern Aleppo province, according to two people familiar with the trip. They were not authorized to publicly discuss the trip and spoke on condition of anonymity after the U.S. delegation had left Syria.

Crossing into opposition-held Syria on what would be a roughly one-hour trip, the lawmakers were presented with flowers from students from Wisdom House. The facility is a school for orphans that is a project of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a U.S.-based Syrian opposition organization that facilitated the lawmakers’ trip.

Hill has been among the most vocal supporters in Congress of the Syrian opposition and his Arkansas constituents have been donors to the school.

The lawmakers also met with opposition and humanitarian leaders, including Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian opposition’s White Helmets emergency rescue group. The organization of volunteer first responders became known internationally for extracting civilians from buildings bombed by allied Russian forces fighting on behalf Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The United Nations says 300,000 civilians have died in the first 10 years of conflict between Assad-allied forces and Syria’s opposition.

Saleh spoke with the lawmakers about the current political status of the conflict in Syria and on continuing humanitarian efforts for victims of a earthquake earlier this year in Turkey and Syria, the White Helmets said on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

The last known trip by a U.S. lawmaker to Syria was in 2017, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visited U.S. forces stationed in northeast Syria’s Kurdish region. McCain had previously visited Syria and met with armed opposition fighters.

Also in 2017, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, visited Damascus, the capital, and met with Assad, a decision that was widely criticized at the time.

Since the beginning of the 2011 uprising-turned-civil-war in Syria, the U.S. government has backed the opposition and has imposed sanctions on Assad’s government and associates over human rights concerns. Washington has conditioned restoring relations with Damascus on progress toward a political solution to the 12-year conflict.

Control of northwest Syria is largely split between the Turkish-backed opposition groups and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group that was originally founded as an offshoot of al-Qaida and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. In recent years, the group’s leadership have attempted to publicly distance themselves from their al-Qaida origins.

The Turkish-backed opposition groups have regularly clashed with Kurdish forces based in northeast Syria, who are allies of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State.

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