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Is A Political Solution The Only Way To End The War In Syria?


President Donald Trump's travel ban on refugees and other people from seven countries is up in the air now that a judge has blocked parts of his executive order. One of the countries on the president's list is Syria.


And let's remember, in September 2015, the image of one Syrian refugee was seared on the world's imagination. It was a little boy drowned and washed up on a beach after a failed attempt to cross with his family from Turkey to Greece.

MARTIN: That boy, Alan Kurdi, and his family were trying to get to Canada to be with their aunt, Tima Kurdi.

TIMA KURDI: The picture of my nephew Alan Kurdi facedown in that Turkish beach - it was the wake-up call to the world. And most importantly, it was my wake-up call.

GREENE: Tima Kurdi, for her part, immigrated to Canada in 1992. She had sent her brother money to pay for smugglers who tried to get Alan and his family to Greece.

KURDI: If I couldn't help my own family, maybe I can put my voice to the world and say I want to help the others who does not have a voice and nobody hear them - enough of this bloody war.

MARTIN: Tima Kurdi says a political solution is the only way to end the war in Syria.

GREENE: Political solution - in other words, negotiating as opposed to supporting groups in armed conflict with Syria's government. Kurdi has found an ally in Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from the state of Hawaii. Actually, Gabbard's office suggested we talk to Kurdi about her story. The congresswoman made a trip to Syria just last month. She drove from Beirut, Lebanon, into Damascus at great personal risk. And while she was there, she met with President Bashar al-Assad, a move that has brought her a lot of criticism.

You have said that you didn't actually plan on meeting President Bashar al-Assad, but...

TULSI GABBARD: No, that wasn't...

GREENE: ...You did.

GABBARD: ...The reason for the trip. And I did not have any intention of doing so. But when the question arose, I felt it was important to take the meeting simply because I think we've got to be ready to meet with anyone if there is a chance that it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering. This is really what's at stake here, whether you think Assad is a good guy or a bad guy. Whatever you think about him, the fact remains that if we profess to care about the Syrian people's suffering - we've professed to care about peace - we've got to be able to do whatever it takes in order to achieve that.

GREENE: He has been accused of human rights violations on a massive scale. The Obama administration called on him to step down. He's been accused of causing death to his own people. Did you learn anything in that meeting that makes you feel otherwise?

GABBARD: What I focused on in that meeting was about how to bring peace to Syria and how we can, as a global community, ensure that we defeat terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS that are causing suffering to the people of Syria and pose a threat to the region and the world.

GREENE: But if I may...

GABBARD: The bottom line is this, David - is that we in the United States, we should not be the world's police force. We can't afford it. We've got to understand that we've spent trillions of dollars on regime-change wars in the Middle East while communities like mine in Hawaii face a severe lack of affordable housing; we've got aging infrastructure; we need to invest in education - and the same is reflected in communities across the country.

We have seen the disastrous outcome in Iraq, in Libya and now in Syria, where our country has led these regime-change wars that have caused more loss of life. And these wars have resulted in a strengthening of groups like ISIS and al-Qaida working directly counterproductive to our interests and the safety and security of the American people.

GREENE: Let me just make sure I understand you. Even if those accusations about what he has done to his own people are true - and it doesn't sound like you're saying they aren't - you believe that this regime-change policy that the United States has had in effect is wrong.

GABBARD: The same thing that - the same argument that people are making about why the United States should overthrow this regime in Syria is the same argument that was made to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq and to overthrow Gadhafi in Libya.

GREENE: President Trump made a very compelling case to many people in this country during the campaign that the focus should be on ISIS and on terrorist groups and not on things like regime change. Fair to say that you and the president appear in agreement here?

GABBARD: Well, look, I deployed twice to the Middle East as a soldier in the Army. I'm a veteran of these wars. I worked in a medical unit during the Iraq War. And through those experiences, I was motivated to run for Congress, largely because I felt it was important to be able to bring that firsthand perspective and voice on what the consequences of our country's regime-change war policies have been.

And if there is this area of agreement and common ground between this new Trump administration and many Democrats and Republicans' calls, this is an opportunity that we should seize because it serves the interests of the American people, and it serves the interests of the people in these countries.

GREENE: Let me ask you about the trip that you just made because there was some controversy over who paid for it. And you've announced you're going to reimburse the group. It was a Cleveland-based group, the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services. There were some reports that they had links to Bashar al-Assad. They deny that. Do they have links to President Assad?

GABBARD: Look, the facts are this. This Arab-American nonprofit organization had sponsored my trip. The trip was completely reviewed and approved by the House Ethics Committee. Because people are trying to use this as a distraction away from the substance of the issue, which is ending the suffering of the Syrian people, I've decided to reimburse the organization for the trip.

GREENE: Just to be clear, are you saying that this group does not have links to President Assad?

GABBARD: That's correct.

GREENE: OK. Congresswoman, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

GABBARD: Thank you.


GREENE: That is Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from the state of Hawaii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.