Tulsi Gabbard, the self-styled “progressive” Hawaiian congresswoman makes no secret of her recent trip to Damascus to meet Bashar al-Assad. But, as an outspoken opponent of what she presents as America’s pro-terrorist foreign policy, Gabbard certainly accepted some strange companions on what her fellow lawmakers are calling a disgraceful reputation-laundering tour of a bloody dictatorship.
Gabbard, as her own office has disclosed, took her “fact-finding” trip with a delegation of two men who are affiliated with an anti-Semitic political party accused of using female suicide bombers; of beating up Western and Arab journalists; helping U.S.-designated terrorist organization Hezbollah and the U.S.-sanctioned Syrian regime wage war in the Levant.
And did we mention the party’s ideology and flag take their inspiration from Nazism?
Gabbard initially declined to say who financed her trip to Syria. However, in a press release Wednesday Gabbard revealed her delegation (which also included former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich) had been “led and sponsored by” an outfit called the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS—Ohio). Her statement added she and the rest of the delegation had been accompanied by two men, Elie and Bassam Khawam.
Almost no information exists in the public domain about AACCESS—Ohio. Ohio Secretary of State records indicate it was founded in 1991, and has been in and out of existence ever since. It has sponsored just one other Congressional trip, one that brought Kucinich to Syria in 2006 and in 2011.
Its website is out of action. It has no identifiable social media presence.
However, a 2006 article refers to “Sam Khawam,” an alias of Bassam Khawam’s, as the “chairman of the Arab American Community Center for Social and Economic Services.” It would suggest, then, despite the slight naming discrepancy (“Social and Economic” rather than “Economic and Social”), that the Messrs. Khawam are part of AACCESS. On Thursday, The Guardian reported that Bassam Khawam was the executive director of the organization.
Contacted Thursday by The Daily Beast and asked about the delegation, Bassam Khawam said he was on another call and, requesting a contact number, pledged to phone back. He had not done so at the time of writing.
Who, then, are the Khawams? Gabbard’s press release described the pair as “longtime peace advocates.” The reality is, to put it as politely as possible, more complicated.
In truth, Bassam and Elie Khawam are both officials in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a political party and paramilitary organization founded in Lebanon in 1932, and currently actively engaged in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime.
According to the SSNP website, Elie enjoys a senior position in the politburo; “Chief of Cross-Border Affairs;” while Bassam was given the honor of presenting Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Ja`fari, with a gift and a toast at a New York dinner in 2015. The pair, in other words, are two of the key U.S.-based point men for the party—and, by extension, the Syrian dictatorship.
On its home turf of Lebanon, the SSNP is known for many things, peace advocacy not being one of them. Highlights of the party’s activities since its founding include assassinating the first Lebanese prime minister, Riad al-Solh, in 1951; and participating in the brief civil war of 1958 as well as its much less-brief successor from 1975-90, during which period they earned the distinction of recruiting Lebanon’s first female suicide bomber, 16-year-old Sana’ Mehaidli, who drove an explosives-laden Peugeot into a convoy of Israeli troops in 1985.
In May 2008, the SSNP assisted the Islamist militants of Hezbollah in their armed takeover of Beirut’s western half, and has ruled its fiefdom of Hamra with an iron fist ever since, famously assaulting and attempting to kidnap the late Christopher Hitchens in 2009, and less famously hospitalizing the Lebanese journalist Omar Harqous.
When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, it fell to the SSNP to violently disperse anti-regime demonstrators outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut, using “fists, sticks, and belts.” Most recently, the party has dispatched an estimated 6,000-8,000 fighters to the Syrian battlefield to help the Assad regime annihilate its opponents, to whom the SSNP officially refers as the “Jews of the interior” and “an essential arm of the racist Jewish enemy.”
If those charming references to Jews seem incongruous at face value (one doesn’t typically find many in Lattakia or Homs provinces these days), they are slightly less so once one understands the SSNP’s ideology, which blends the fascism of 1930s Europe with a junk eugenical-historical theory about a “Greater Syrian” race whose ancestral homeland extends, as the party’s Facebook page explains, from “the Zagros mountains in the north-east” through modern Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine to “the Sinai peninsula” in the west, even incorporating Cyprus.
All of the above territories, the party maintains, ought to be combined in a single “Greater Syrian” nation run in accordance with the principles of its founder, Antun Sa`adeh, a professor of German at the American University of Beirut.
As the late author Samir Kassir wrote in his celebrated history of the Lebanese capital, Beirut: “From Hitlerite Germany [Sa`adeh] borrowed the symbolism and rituals of the SSNP, based on the National Socialist model: the party’s emblem, a red vortex on a white ground framed in black that recreated the spiral motion of the swastika; the martial salute, arm outstretched; the cult of the leader (Za`im), though ‘Heil Hitler’ gave way to the impersonal exhortation “Tahya Surya” (Long Live Syria); and the paramilitary organization, supplemented by a glorification of violence.”
Gabbard herself is a unique figure in progressive circles. While she generated a lot of left-wing cred by resigning from the Democratic National Committee to back Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign, she also holds a series of positions that Donald Trump backers can back. She is wishy-washy on gun control, opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and pals around with right-wing Republican casino mogul and hawkish pro-Israel advocate Sheldon Adelson.
And after the presidential election, Gabbard was the first Democrat to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump, going to Trump Tower in New York to press a piece of legislation she authored, called the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would help halt CIA and federal government’s activities in Syria by requiring the Director of National Intelligence to determine that federal funds not go to groups cooperating with al-Qaeda or ISIS.
But her decision to meet with Assad has drawn fire from her Congressional colleagues, who believe she should not have met with a man accused of atrocities.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, described Tulsi’s trip as a “disgrace.”
“I thought it was awful,” Kinzinger told The Daily Beast. “In no way should any member of Congress, in no way should any government official ever travel to meet with a guy who has killed 500,000 people and 50,000 children. It is sad, and a shame, and a disgrace.”
“I’m interested to see where the money came from for the trip,” he added, “and for me I will always stand on the side of saying people have a right to freedom, a right to democracy… to meet with a butcher is absolutely wrong and a disgrace.”
Kinzinger said that the Congressional leaders of both parties, Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan, should condemn Gabbard’s trip and repudiate her propagandistic findings from it.
“She has the audacity to say that everywhere she went, people supported Assad. Of course, when you have an Assad-led tour, he’s only going to take you to places where people like him.”
Meanwhile, fellow Democratic party members in Gabbard’s Congressional district have similarly reprimanded the legislator for what they say was a Potemkin tour designed to whitewash a mass murderous dictatorship.
“On Saturday when I participated in the women’s march on Maui along with thousands of Gabbard’s constituents, people were asking, ‘Where’s Tulsi?,’ Ian Chan Hodges, a former Democratic Party chair for Maui County, told The Daily Beast. “ When we learned from CNN that she was meeting Assad, people in her district were stunned and angry. A native Hawaiian elder told me that she was sick to her stomach thinking that Tulsi holds the Congressional seat once represented by Patsy Mink,” Hodges said, referring to the progressive representative who went to work for the Carter administration as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
Some supporters of Syria’s rebels have also taken to calling for a formal Congressional rebuke of Gabbard.
Evan Barrett, the political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an anti-Assad activist group based in Washington, D.C., said, “Gabbard continues to make political hay out of pretending to oppose a war that doesn’t exist and has no relation to the situation on the ground in Syria. There is no meaningful U.S. policy in opposition to the Assad regime, and with the transition from the administration of Barack Obama to Donald Trump, even America’s rhetorical opposition to Assad has been relaxed.”
Barrett was referring to Gabbard’s controversial (and unfounded) statements, on her Twitter feed and in the media, that the U.S. is purposively backing “terrorists” in Syria, including al-Qaeda.
She is also outspoken in her support for Russia’s intervention in the war-ravaged country, which, against all credible data to the contrary, she insists was designed to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS rather than prop up the Assad regime.
“Bad enough US has not been bombing al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria,” Gabbard tweeted in September, at the start of Vladimir Putin’s air war in Syria. “But it’s mind-boggling that we protest Russia’s bombing of these terrorists.” (Multiple human rights monitors, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International, have alleged that Russia’s bombing campaign, which has inflicted higher civilian fatalities than even ISIS atrocities have in Syria, has amounted to war crimes.)
Gabbard’s office told The Daily Beast that her trip was “approved by the House Ethics Committee, the only House rules requirement, and was not taxpayer funded. And as previously stated, this visit was not publicized or announced in any way beforehand for obvious security reasons. The Trump Administration was not aware or involved in the trip in any way, and the congresswoman has not been in touch with them since returning regarding this trip or anything else.”
"Rep. Gabbard went to Syria to see and hear firsthand the impact of the war in Syria directly from the Syrian people, and that remained her focus throughout the trip. AACCESS-Ohio has done numerous fact-finding trips to the region before, including to Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and other countries, and was approved by the House Ethics Committee to sponsor the congresswoman’s travel. Your questions regarding AACCESS-Ohio or its membership should be directed to the organization or its leadership, or former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich who has been on several AACCESS-Ohio trips to the region.”
Update: Subsequent to the publication of this article, one of the members of Congresswoman Gabbard's delegation, Elie Khawam, contacted The Daily Beast. While admitting that he was a member of the SSNP, he claimed the party had no official involvement "in any way, shape, or form" with the congresswoman's delegation. "The SSNP has nothing to do with that trip, or with any trip that we [meaning him and his brother, Bassam] ever made in the past or in the future. It is totally independent," he asserted. Mr Khawam also objected to being described as a "fascist," claiming his party's anti-Jewish rhetoric had "nothing to do with Jews as a religion."