The lonely road of Tulsi Gabbard.

Photographer: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

The Wrong Way to Take a Stand for Assad

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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On Monday, 392 lawmakers voted for a resolution to say that the Assad regime and its allies are committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria and that the United States should support the establishment of a tribunal to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Three lawmakers voted against the measure. The only Democrat, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, tweeted her explanation to me: “Voted against thinly-veiled call for no fly zone & war to oust Syrian gov, just like resos be4 Gaddafi & Saddam regime change war.”

Gabbard told me on Tuesday that "this resolution needs to be seen in the context of calls for a no-fly and/or safe zone by many of the same people who put forward this resolution." She pointed to language in the resolution that "urges the Administration to establish additional mechanisms for the protection of civilians and to ensure access to humanitarian aid for vulnerable populations."

However, this week's nonbinding resolution on Assad’s war crimes is not similar to the runup to the U.S. invasions of Libya in 2011 or Iraq in 2003. Lawmakers had condemned Saddam Hussein's war crimes, but also explicitly authorized the use of force in 2002, before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Congress's condemnation of human rights violations in Libya did not precipitate the U.S.-led intervention; it happened almost simultaneously. There’s little chance this resolution will lead President Barack Obama to escalate his pressure on the Syrian regime, more than four years after declaring “Assad must go.”

The other two lawmakers who voted against the Syria resolution, Republicans Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, are libertarians. Gabbard is not. She is the Democratic Party’s chief defender of Bashar al-Assad and an advocate for a U.S. policy that would keep his government in place.

In a press release after the vote, Gabbard called the bill, which was sponsored by Republican Chris Smith, “a thinly veiled attempt to use the rationale of ‘humanitarianism’ as a justification for overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad.”

The Smith bill was passed as part of a package with a bill by Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry that condemns the Islamic State for committing genocide against ethnic minorities, including Christians, in Syria and Iraq. Gabbard voted for that bill, but in a separate press release decried an amendment by Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It said the Assad regime “had contributed to the rise” of the Islamic State.

“This amendment is an obvious attempt to make ISIS look like their cause is legitimate,” Gabbard said. “The reality is that the language added to this resolution, coupled with its sister HCR 121, is really aimed at justifying the overthrow of Assad.”

Gabbard is a rising star in the Democratic Party. She was the vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee until last month, when she resigned from that post in order to endorse and campaign for Bernie Sanders's presidential bid. She is the first Samoan American member of Congress, and its first Hindu.

A major in the Hawaii Army National Guard who served in Iraq, she is a frequent commentator on foreign policy -- often faulting the Mideast policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations as being too interventionist.

Last November on CNN, she said Assad should not be removed because that would create a power vacuum that terrorists would fill. She also introduced a bill that would require the U.S. to end all efforts to overthrow Assad, including the CIA program to train and arm Syrian rebels. In a press release, she said any effort to oust Assad “puts us in direct conflict with Russia and increases the likelihood of war between the United States and Russia and the possibility of another world war.”

There is another leader of the Democratic Party who shares Gabbard’s aversion to U.S. military intervention in Syria and her concern that greater U.S. involvement could spark a larger conflict with Assad’s allies. That would be President Barack Obama. But in a recent interview with the Atlantic, Obama drew a clear distinction between calling out the Assad regime for human rights violations and intervening in Syria.

“That’s a weird argument to me, the notion that if we use our moral authority to say ‘This is a brutal regime, and this is not how a leader should treat his people,’ once you do that, you are obliged to invade the country and install a government you prefer,” Obama said.

The evidence that the Assad regime has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity is overwhelming. “We can identify these crimes pretty clearly. That should be the easy part,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Holocaust Museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “We all acknowledge that the hard part is debating what to do about it.”

There is one valid argument against pushing now to hold the Assad regime accountable: the claim that doing so complicates the chances for successful diplomatic negotiations toward a political transition in Syria. If Assad faces criminal prosecution abroad, he is less likely to ever leave home, the logic goes.

But preparing for a future tribunal to punish war criminals is a prerequisite to peace in Syria. History shows that sustainable peace after such atrocities requires justice and accountability as part of reconciliation, such as in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Gabbard has the right to support a policy that tries to preserve the regime’s rule in Syria. As Mouaz Moustafa, who leads a nongovernmental organization that works with the Syrian opposition, said: “The Assad regime appreciates her vote.”

She may see that as the only road that leads away from chaos. But American leaders who choose not to oust Assad -- people like Obama and Gabbard and her Republican allies Amash and Massie -- can do so while acknowledging the dictator's crimes. A vote against the war-crimes resolution is not a bold stand against intervention. It is only an insult to the Syrian civilians being slaughtered.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net