GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria

GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria
© Courtesy Dave Eubank

A Republican lawmaker made an unannounced trip to Syria this past week, meeting with Kurdish fighters allied with the U.S. against ISIS and American aid workers helping civilians caught in the crossfire of Turkey’s offensive into the region.

Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, traveled to northeastern Syria beginning last week for a multiday tour, visiting front-line positions where Kurdish forces trade fire daily with Turkish-backed fighters despite an October cease-fire agreement.

"The purpose of my trip was to express my deep concerns for the safety of Christians and other persecuted minorities in the region as well as my support for self-governance among the Kurds," Abraham wrote in an email to The Hill.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is 'a wise and prudent decision' MORE in October ordered U.S. troops stationed in northeastern Syria to evacuate the region, clearing the way for a Turkish offensive launched with the purpose of eliminating Kurdish groups that Ankara views as terrorists.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle widely condemned the pullout of American forces and criticized the Trump administration for abandoning Kurdish allies in the face of the Turkish offensive. Kurdish fighters, along with Arab and ethnic minority and religious groups, fight under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces alongside the U.S. to root out ISIS from Syria.

In October, Abraham was among those who voted against a House resolution condemning Turkey’s invasion, saying he agreed with Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops and called the vote a “deceitful ploy” by Democrats to create divisions in the Republican Party.

The resolution passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 354-60.

U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October that there is evidence Turkey committed war crimes during its offensive.

The U.S. suspended counter-ISIS operations immediately following the Turkish offensive and removed about 400 American troops from the region. About 600 troops remain, mostly guarding oil fields ISIS once used to generate profits; joint operations against ISIS have resumed.

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Abraham has served in Congress since 2015 and presents himself as an ally of the president. He is a veterinarian, a physician, a veteran of the Army National Guard and a fixed-wing and helicopter pilot.

“He’s brave,” said Dave Eubank, an American aid worker who helped organize the congressman’s trip. “He just said, ‘I’ll go.’ He said, ‘Take me to the most dangerous, nastiest place so I can learn.’”

Abraham was introduced on Capitol Hill to Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers, an aid organization grounded in Christian faith and established in 1997 to provide medical training to ethnic Burmese civilians caught up in Myanmar’s decades-old civil war.

“He was interested in the plight of the Burmese and came to our camp in December,” Eubank said of Abraham. “He had to walk in, it was in the middle of the jungle.”

In 2014, the Free Burma Rangers expanded their operations toward the Middle East with the rise of ISIS, working in Iraq and Syria with the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga and the Syrian Democratic Forces to evacuate civilians fleeing ISIS.

Eubank, with his wife, three children and Free Burma Ranger team members, were in the Kurdish areas of Syria when Turkey launched its offensive on Nov. 9.

“That was pretty terrible,” he said. One of his volunteers was killed during an attack on Kurdish positions by Turkish-backed forces near the village of Tal Tamr.

In December, during Abraham’s visit, Eubank said the congressman expressed an interest in traveling to Syria to see the areas most affected by the U.S. withdrawal of troops.

“He said, ‘I want to go see it and make sure our president is getting the right information,’” Eubank said.

The situation in northeastern Syria is relatively stable at the moment, with Russia patrolling a cease-fire line. Yet sporadic artillery fire and shelling occurs daily, Eubank said, and approximately 200,000 people have yet to return to their homes in the territory occupied by Turkey.

Eubank said Abraham traveled to the front-line position of Tal Tamr but avoided any shelling.

“They weren’t shelling at that minute but they shelled after he left,” Eubank said.

Abraham also traveled to Raqqa, the city ISIS claimed as its capital. There he met with the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), General Mazloum Abdi, who Trump had praised on Twitter and offered to meet with.

The commander posted on Twitter that he and Abraham discussed the security situation in Raqqa, the impact of the withdrawal of forces in the coalition against ISIS which includes the U.S., and ongoing Turkish attacks.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused Abdi of being a terrorist and told a Turkish state television station that the U.S. should hand him over to Turkish authorities.

Abraham told local Kurdish media he was impressed with Raqqa’s reconstruction under the SDF.
 
“I am impressed so much by the progress that has been made in Raqqa. Literally, the city has risen from rubble and it is continuing to rise every day that the sun rises,” he told the Rudaw newswire.

He also met with military leaders of minority groups, like the Syriac-Christian militia, the Syriac Military Council, and civil society representatives like the Raqqa civil council, public works employees, representatives for women’s issues and religious representatives.

“I think he learned how bad it was here, first hand,” Eubank said. “He learned how wonderful the people are, what a good system they have; it works.”

In its 2019 report and before the Turkish incursion, the U.S. Commission on International Freedom described northeastern Syria as a “safe refuge” with a “substantial degree of religious freedom, gender equality and representation in local governing bodies” under the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

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Abraham is the first U.S. lawmaker to visit the region since the incursion. He's also one of only a handful of members to travel into Syria.

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order The Hill's Morning Report — ,000,000,000,000: GOP unveils historic US rescue effort Gillibrand endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Hawaii), a 2020 presidential candidate, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in January 2017, and the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal Ernst calls for public presidential campaign funds to go to masks, protective equipment President Trump is right — Now's the time for 'all hands on deck' MORE (R-Ariz.) made a secret trip in February that year to the Kurdish-held areas in Syria, accompanied by the U.S. military.

Locals who met Abraham expressed a deep resentment and mistrust of the U.S., Eubank said.

“There was a lot of anger everywhere we went, everywhere,” he said.

Abraham was not recognizable as a congressman among the people he met, Eubank said, adding that they are more familiar with Trump and lawmakers who speak out for the Kurds, like Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: Pelosi comment on Trump is 'most shameful, disgusting statement by any politician in modern history' Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus MORE (R-S.C.). Eubank said he's heard people say they only trust in God and Graham.

Graham is a close Trump ally but one who has spoken out forcefully against the Turkish invasion.

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Congress has stalled on moving forward sanctions against Turkey for its offensive against Syrian Kurds. A sanctions package drafted by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sens. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTensions boil over on Senate floor amid coronavirus debate  Overnight Defense: Pentagon confirms Iran behind recent rocket attack | Esper says 'all options on the table' | Military restricts service member travel over coronavirus Graham warns of 'aggressive' response to Iran-backed rocket attack that killed US troops MORE (R-Idaho) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHillicon Valley: Facebook launches portal for coronavirus information | EU sees spike in Russian misinformation on outbreak | Senate Dem bill would encourage mail-in voting | Lawmakers question safety of Google virus website Democratic senators press Google over privacy of coronavirus screening site Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees MORE (D-N.J.), respectively, has failed to reach the floor for a vote.

Eubank said Abraham’s visit helped demonstrate to Syrians that there is still some U.S. commitment to the region.

“‘They said, ‘Well, you give us hope that Americans still have morals, that Americans still care,’” he said.

Updated at 4:20 p.m.