Tulsi Gabbard is not the pro-peace presidential candidate we want

Gabbard’s record on Syria, though it may appear as ‘pro-peace’ on the surface, actually aligns with regime propaganda.

Tulsi Gabbar - Reuters
Since announcing her candidacy on January 11, Tulsi Gabbard has come under wider scrutiny for her voting record and public statements on Syria [Stephen Lam/Reuters]

There are many women, both Syrian and international allies, fighting for peace and justice for the Syrian people, but Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)  is not among them. I should know: I am a member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, a multinational and transnational network of Syrian feminists pushing for political justice for Syrians within the country and Syrian refugees around the world.

I was invited to join the movement as a Syrian American because I spent the past six years working on the Syrian issue from the United States, both as an advocate on the hill and as a grassroots community organiser who was invited to speak to Americans across the country – including to progressive groups in Gabbard’s district. I have heard first-hand how weary Americans are of war and how wary Tulsi Gabbard’s constituents are of her positions on foreign affairs – so much so that the Hawaii teachers’ association backed her opponent in the 2018 midterms, citing her support of President Bashar al-Assad as a primary reason.

Now, Gabbard is working to distinguish herself in a crowded Democratic presidential field as the only candidate who is able and willing to take on foreign policy. She has come under wider scrutiny for her voting record and public statements on Syria. She voted for restricting resettlement of Syrian refugees and against condemning the Assad regime for war crimes. She also met with Bashar al-Assad in the name of “truly caring for the Syrian people,” and has raised scepticism that the regime was behind the 2017 Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons attack. She has supported the Syrian and Russian regimes in their bombing campaigns on multiple occasions and espouses a narrative that paints the entire armed Syrian opposition as al-Qaeda terrorists, erasing the legitimate call from Syrians for a regime change of their own, and defining the narrative as a US-driven regime-change war.

While the US does indeed have a history of engaging in regime-change wars, like during the illegal invasion and occupation in Iraq, she is wrong about the fundamental dynamics of the Syrian conflict. In Syria, the original call for “regime change” came from a popular unarmed grassroots civilian movement within the country. It is telling how Tulsi Gabbard does not speak of or mention the Syrian revolution as the precipitating event of the Syrian conflict, and it is in this way that she obscures the actual dynamics of the crisis.

It is important to understand that Gabbard’s framing of Syria as a “US regime-change war” where the choice is between the Syrian regime and “terrorists” is also the same messaging used by the Assad regime, which has been able to survive this long in part by denying the Syrian revolution, asserting its state sovereignty, and claiming that it is waging a war against terroristsWe practice a sovereign right of self-defence, and we will continue to fight terrorism wherever it is found on Syrian soil,” Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, has said. This narrative flies in the face of overwhelming evidence from human rights organisations within Syria and around the world. It also detracts from the reality of American military involvement in Syria.

For example, Physicians for Human Rights has documented that 90 percent of attacks on hospitals in Syria were perpetrated by the Syrian regime and Russia, Amnesty International and Families for Freedom have done extensive work highlighting the plight of the 100,000-plus persons detained by the Syrian government, and the Syrian Network for Human Rights sends regular, daily updates recording attacks from all parties. While there are multiple parties committing violence in Syria, the overwhelming majority of attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure is perpetrated by the Syrian regime.

This is why many have called Gabbard an Assad apologist. She fundamentally skews the dynamics of the Syrian crisis in a way that aligns with regime propaganda, voted against allowing in Syrian refugees and against condemning Assad’s war crimes, and makes statements that go against the findings of human rights organisations. Gabbard adamantly rejects the label, recently telling commentator Joe Rogan in May that: 

“It’s the usual tactic of trying to smear or vilify me and my campaign and what I’m advocating for, uh, because they don’t want to engage on the actual issue itself that I’m pointing out about how devastating and costly their policies are of continuing to wage these wasteful regime-change wars of choosing to support terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in Syria, directly in Syria, because they are the most powerful force on the ground who is fighting to take out the regime. So they are so focused on toppling this government in Syria that they are willing to actually use taxpayer dollars to provide direct and indirect support to al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria. When you think about how crazy this is, uh, it makes me angry. I think it makes most people angry.”

Far from being a smear tactic, what we want is to hold Tulsi Gabbard accountable for spreading misinformation in a way that benefits a genocidal dictator. Engaging the actual issue of Syria would require engaging with the demands of Syrian civil society groups like the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, whose political demands are clearly outlined in a communique calling for, among other things, dealing with the issue of political detainees and a political transition to a democratic and pluralistic country.

When I speak to Americans across the country about Syria, I always include in the conversation questions on how progressives should imagine our role with regards to international issues in a highly globalised world. Invariably, we discuss how the best way for progressives to be internationalists is through local action and accountability. That’s why progressives in Tulsi Gabbard’s district have been trying to hold her accountable for her record on Syria, and other issues, but have been unsuccessful because the congresswoman has a history of being unavailable at town halls and declining invitations for local debate. That is as telling a sign as any to what kind of leader Gabbard might be on the international stage, and why I tell everyone: Tulsi Gabbard is not the pro-peace presidential candidate we want.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.