Congressional trip to Syria, rare and brief, highlights a forsaken region


BAB AL-SALAMEH, Syria — During a visit to this border post by three U.S. congressmen Sunday, the first trip to Syria by American lawmakers since 2018, a group of orphaned children greeted the delegation with flowers in front of a banner in English that read, “Welcome to Free Syria.”

Their visit was an “honor,” the children’s teacher said.

It was intended as a show of solidarity with people living in dire conditions in areas outside the Syrian government’s control. But, as official visits go, it was the equivalent of a dipped toe, lasting about half an hour, within sight of the Turkish border. The lawmakers — Reps. French Hill (R-Ark.), Ben Cline (R-Va) and Scott Fitzgerald (R-Wis.) — had been planning a longer trip to several Syrian towns but were overruled by the State Department, which cited security concerns, according to the organizers.

The schedule change seemed to highlight both the persistence of the conflict and the muddled approach to it by the United States — which is both an active participant that maintains troops in Syria and broad sanctions on its government, and a distant observer, eying pockets of hardship from a remove as the country’s future is shaped by forces beyond America’s control.

As the congressmen filed out of Syria in a convoy of armored cars, the children were led away and a man rolled up the “Free Syria” banner on the wall.

Twelve years after the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government — with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced — Syria remains divided and unsettled. A swath of northern Syria is controlled by opposition forces, while Assad, whose military is backed by Russia and Iran, presides over the lion’s share of the country.

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Increasingly, though, Syria’s neighbors and other countries in the Middle East — including those who once armed the opposition — have bet on Assad’s survival, either normalizing their relations with his government or signaling their intent to do so. Behind the mending of ties is a frustration that Syria’s war without end remains a key source of regional instability.

In Lebanon and Turkey, popular sentiment has turned against millions of Syrian refugees, and both governments have begun deporting them back to their country, over the objections of human rights groups. Jordan and Persian Gulf states are struggling to combat an influx of Captagon, an illegal amphetamine produced in Syria and distributed by Assad’s allies.

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The Biden administration has opposed normalizing ties with Syria’s government and has warned its regional partners against doing so. “But it’s been done,” Hill said in an interview after the trip, referring to Syria being welcomed back to the Arab League in May. “So how can we use American influence to actually encourage a real change?”

“As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I am uncertain as to what the Biden administration Syria policy is, or the objectives,” Hill continued. His visit to Syria, along with other trips to regional capitals over the past few months, including Baghdad and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was “helping me think through what are the right questions to ask, and what is the right way to formulate” an approach to the conflict, he said.

Over the past few weeks, protests against the Syrian government have spread across the south of the country, spurred by a decision to slash fuel subsidies. The rare outbursts of anger, which have evoked memories of the early days of the Syrian uprising, are testing a government that has shown its willingness to use deadly and indiscriminate force against demonstrators.

The forces roiling the country are not just political. In February, thousands of people were killed when two earthquakes struck Turkey and northern Syria. A delayed global humanitarian response to the tragedy in opposition-controlled areas highlighted the legal gray zone that northwest Syria has become, off-limits to the United States and other Western nations because of the presence of militant groups but home to millions of Syrians the global community says it supports.

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A few miles away from the border post, on a road the lawmakers might have traveled Sunday, makeshift camps had been erected in olive groves to shelter people displaced by the earthquakes. Forty-two families were living in tents, many from the devastated town of Jinderis. They had been displaced again and again since 2011.

“I went to 500 places,” said Mohammed Eissa, who said he served as the camp’s manager — an unpaid position, because the place had no sponsor or official recognition. No one at the camp had heard about the visit by the Americans, or seemed to care much that it had happened.

Roqaiya Mohammed, another camp resident, said her family was struggling to survive on the salary her husband made cooking meals for rebel fighters, amounting to 1,000 Turkish lira, or about $37, a month. She and her family had been in the camp for eight months and would be in similar places, she reckoned, “until we die.”

Even with their trip cut short, the congressional delegation had been able to meet with the people they intended to see in Syria, Hill said, including rescue workers known as the White Helmets and members of Syria’s political opposition, part of a chorus of voices advocating different approaches to the conflict.

Arab officials have told Hill that normalization was aimed at reducing Iran’s influence in Syria, among other goals, he said. But the congressmen’s hosts Sunday, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, or SETF, advocated a hard line against the Assad government and were critical of the Biden administration’s position.

The White House “has obviously put Syria on the back burner,” said Mouaz Moustafa, the group’s executive director. The Biden administration “says we will not normalize unless there is progress on the political track. That is a far cry from ‘Assad must go.’”

At a dinner Sunday evening in Turkey that the congressmen attended, a State Department official was overheard asking women keeping the guest lists whether there were any “representatives of armed groups” at the event — focused, it seemed, on ensuring the dinner was not somehow embarrassing for the United States. She was told there were not.

“Know that the people of Syria have a friend in Washington, D.C.,” Hill told his audience, when he was asked to the podium. “We want to see Syrians return to their villages.”


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