High-level US delegation makes rare visit to rebel-held northwest Syria

It is the first such visit in six years since members of the US Congress went to Syria led by late Senator John McCain.

US delegation visits rebel-held Syria on August 27
American politicians visited rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria on Sunday, August 27 [Bakr Alkasem/Al Jazeera]

A high-level United States delegation has made a rare visit to rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria in an effort to highlight the “ongoing humanitarian catastrophe” there.

The delegation that arrived on Sunday included three members of the US Congress – Ben Cline, Scott Fitzgerald, and French Hill – all members of the US Republican Party.

The Americans entered Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Salameh border crossing on a visit that lasted about 30 minutes.

“Today, three members of Congress crossed into Syria to renew attention to the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe,” said Celine Kasem, a member of the Washington, DC-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, a political advocacy and humanitarian group, which organised this visit.

Kasem told Al Jazeera that the congressional delegation was greeted by orphaned children from a kindergarten in the northern Aleppo countryside that Congressman Hill’s community in Arkansas has helped support for years. They also met internally displaced Syrians, opposition figures, and aid workers.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) estimates the population in northwestern Syria has topped 4.5 million people, with 1.9 million living in displacement camps.

Many Syrians fled to the region during the 12-year war fought between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and their allies against forces opposed to his rule.

“The children spoke to the delegation about how they have lived under bombardment from Assad, Iran, and Russia consistently, which displaced them and resulted in the loss of their families, becoming orphans,” Kasem said.

US delegation visit to rebel-held Syria, August 27, 2023
Three members of the US Congress visited with orphaned Syrian children [Bakr Alkasem/Al Jazeera]

‘Surprising and unexpected’

This marks the first such visit since 2017, when members of Congress went to Syria led by late Senator John McCain – one of the strongest advocates of US military aid for the Syrian opposition during the war.

Last week, the opposition’s “provisional government” announced a meeting in Turkey between its leader Abdurrahman Mustafa and Nicholas Granger, the US State Department envoy to north and east Syria.

Discussions focused on the political, military, and economic situation in areas freed from pro-al-Assad forces.

“The visit of the American delegation today was surprising and unexpected, following a hiatus that lasted years after the cessation of military support to opposition factions in 2017,” said Riyad al-Khatib, 32, from the city of Mare in the Aleppo governate.

The US launched measures to support opposition factions in Syria in 2013, but froze those efforts during former President Donald Trump’s tenure in 2017.

Subsequently, military support became limited to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) located in eastern Syria, which has fought the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in addition to supporting opposition factions near a US base on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

“We need there to be frequent visits to the region, not only by the United States but also by European Union countries to assess the humanitarian situation in the area,” al-Khatib said.

“The region continues to experience ongoing bombardment by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, and at times by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.”

Bab al-Salameh crossing
The US delegation entered Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Salameh border crossing [Bakr Alkasem/Al Jazeera]

Visit follows sanctions

On August 17, the US Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on three leaders of the Syrian National Army – previously the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – in northwestern Syria.

Among them was Mohammed al-Jassim, known as Abu Amsha, commander of the Suleiman Shah Brigade, and Saif Bolad Abu Bakr, leader of the Hamza Division. Sanctions also targeted Ahmed al-Hayes, commander of the Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction, which is listed as a “terrorist” group by the United States.

The sanctions were imposed against the commanders because of their alleged involvement in human rights violations against residents.

“The US sanctions on faction leaders sent a message to Ankara about its misuse of these figures and factions. These sanctions came for Turkey to adjust its strategy in governing this region,” said Turki Mustafa, a political analyst and historian from southern Aleppo.

Mustafa told Al Jazeera that the American visit also aligns with US military developments in the Middle East.

“While the announced purpose of the congressional delegates’ visit is to assess the living situation in northwestern Syria, it also carries an American vision for de-escalation between the SDF and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, especially in light of discussions about closing the Syrian-Iraqi border to Iranian militias,” Mustafa said.

Source: Al Jazeera