On March 30, 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the "long term status of [Syrian] President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people." Following this comment, Ibrahim Al-Amin, editor in chief of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to the Assad regime and Hizbullah, published a front-page article in the daily arguing that Tillerson's statement was not surprising and that it had been preceded by a message from President Trump to Assad via Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who met with him in mid-January 2017.
According to Al-Amin, who likely received leaked information reflecting the position of the Syrian regime, during the meeting with Assad, Gabbard inquired, on President Trump's behalf, about the possibility that the two would speak directly via telephone, and Assad instantly agreed without consulting with Iran and Russia.
Al-Amin also claimed that Gabbard had told Assad that the struggle against ISIS, rather than Assad's ouster, was Trump's top priority, that he is therefore interested in collaborating with the Assad regime on this matter, and that he even believes that Iran is serious in its own fight against the terrorist organization. He added that Trump stressed that direct relations with Syria and a lifting of sanctions in accordance with Syria's demands are matters that will take time to settle.
Additionally, Al-Amin said that Assad gave Gabbard proof of U.S. security personnel involvement in supporting terrorist groups in Syria ordered by the previous U.S. president, Barack Obama.
In this context, it should be noted that on January 20, 2017, the Qatari Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, which is published in London, reported that Gabbard had arrived in Syria and met with Assad, and that she had been sent by Trump.
According to U.S. media reports, Rep. Gabbard's unusual seven-day visit was coordinated by the Cleveland, Ohio-based Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS-Ohio). The group's head, Bassam Khawam, said that he personally had financed the trip and denied that he has links to Assad.
Al-Amin's front page article in Al-Akhbar
Following are excerpts from Al-Amin's article:
Trump Sends Message To Assad: Interested In A Phone Conversation To Discuss Collaborating In The Fight Against ISIS
"The statement made by the White House that the Syrian people would decide Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's fate was unsurprising and was heralded early last fall, before and after Donald Trump's election as U.S. president in place of Barack Obama, who was nearly prepared to launch a military campaign against the Syrian government in the summer of 2013 [due to allegations of chemical weapons use by the regime]...
"The Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard, has contentious opinions regarding the events in our countries. This woman, whose voice can be heard in the corridors [of power] and in the media, was an unwanted voice for elements of influence in the [Obama] administration. She decided to study up close what really happens here, particularly in Syria, and decided in mid-summer of last year to visit Syria and examine the facts...
"After [Trump's] victory in the election [and prior to his inauguration], he and his team examined whether Gabbard could be talked into accepting a central role in his new administration. During the contacts and deliberations [with Gabbard], Trump discovered her intention to visit Syria, and asked her to postpone the visit until after his inauguration, since he had something to say to her [on the matter]. Gabbard agreed and met with President Elect Trump on November 21 for over 2.5 hours... During the meeting, [Trump] asked her to outline her view on the situation in Syria and Iraq. After hearing what she had to say, he told her he agreed with her analysis...
"Trump asked her: 'Will you meet with [Bashar] Al-Assad in Damascus?' She replied: 'Most likely!' He said: 'OK. Ask him if he is willing to call me [and tell him] that I'm willing to call him on the phone, but he must know now that [our] main collaboration will be in the fight against ISIS. He [Assad] will see that the demand to oust him does not concern me, and that this matter will gradually disappear from the discourse. As for direct ties [to the American administration] and the lifting of sanctions, these two things take time, and the important thing is that we know [Assad's] course of action and the extent to which his is willing to collaborate with us separately from the Russians and Iranians. We must shift our policy towards Al-Assad. A direct embrace [of Assad] could help. The man survived in his role. Reality indicates that if we wish to effectively deal with ISIS, we have to hold ties with him [Assad].'
"Trump the pragmatist believes that the policy of his predecessor Obama has ruined American influence in the Middle East, and holds him responsible for leaving the arena open to Russian influence. Trump believes that his administration should once again participate in managing the region, particularly with regards to Syria and Iraq. In this context, Trump wishes to change all the policies of the [previous] administration, both foreign and domestic. He commits to not confronting Russia and seeks to increase the pressure on Iran, and to cancel the results of the JCPOA even without giving up the agreement itself. He believes that Syria is the arena [on which to reach] understandings with Russians and others.
"Trump also believes that ISIS is the main danger for everyone, and is sure that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey play a role in supporting ISIS and all Al-Qaeda branches. Despite his hatred of Iran, he believes it is the most serious in fighting ISIS. He does not want a mere political change, but rather a strategic one, and therefore the important thing to do now in his opinion is focus on ISIS and ignore the other targets, including ousting Al-Assad. He knows he has many rivals in the U.S., in the [political] parties, the media, the intelligence [community] and parts of the military, but he does not want to back down [from this position]..."
Assad to Gabbard: U.S. Security Personnel Are Involved In Supporting Terrorists In Syria
Al-Amin also reported on what happened during Gabbard's meeting with President Assad. He wrote: "Assad received her with his well-known smile, shook hands with the delegation, and inquired about their trip. She immediately got [down to business,] saying: 'I am here on a visit to examine facts. I want to visit as many areas of Syria as possible and to meet with people on the ground. I want you to help me and provide me with proven documented data about the elements supporting the terror organizations, particularly ISIS and Al-Qaeda. I am here with Congress's approval. I meant to come a few months ago, but the visit was postponed at the request of President Trump himself."
"Gabbard set out before Assad her view regarding the situation in Syria and in the region, saying: 'I met with Presdient Trump before I came. I am bringing you a message from him. He asked me convey to you his perception and his ideas about the region and asked me something else directly.'
"Assad continued to listen, and Gabbard presented her perception and what she had heard from the American president-elect. She presented to him the comments of the American administration with regard to the policy of its allies – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the other Gulf states – concerning Syria. She told him that Trump's top priority was the fight against terrorism, and that when he came to examine the issue of Iran he [Trump] would take into account that [Iran] was very serious in the fight against ISIS. President Trump, she said, 'wants to essentially change U.S. policy vis-à-vis Syria and the region.'
"Assad asked her: 'Is this your impression after the meeting with Trump?'
"Gabbard answered, 'No, these are his ideas. He asked me to convey them to you. In short, we want to cooperate with you in the fight against ISIS. Trump was very amazed by Russia's insight in dealing with the Syria issue, and he wants to draw up understandings with the Russians regarding Syria.'
"Then Gabbard suddenly asked Assad: 'If President Trump calls you, will you pick up the phone?'
"Assad smiled and asked her, 'Is this a hypothetical question or a proposal?'
"She replied: 'It's not a hypothetical question.'
"Assad: 'Is this your proposal?'
"She answered: 'No, it is a question that President Trump is asking you, and he asked me to convey it to you. I ask again: If he calls you, will you answer?'
"Gabbard was surprised at Assad's swift reply. He said: 'Of course. I will give you a telephone number where I can be reached quickly."
"Gabbard seemed surprised, as if she had been under the mistaken impression that Assad would not answer directly and that he would ask for time to think about it. It became clear later that the Trump administration thought that Assad would ask for time before answering [the question] in order to consult with his Russian and Iranian allies. The Americans honestly thought that Assad 'would not dare to be in touch with them without Moscow's approval.'"
Al-Amin then reported that after the meeting with Assad, Gabbard met with other officials, and visited Aleppo, and before leaving that city "her assistant received a phone call informing him that President Assad had decided to meet with her again on Wednesday for the entire day, that [Assad] had made arrangements to hold detailed meetings with her, including lunch, and that he would give her irrefutable documents proving that U.S. security personnel are directly involved in supporting terrorists in Syria as requested by the administration of the previous president, Barack Obama.
"And this is what happened. [Gabbard's] departure from Damascus was postponed from Wednesday to Thursday. On Wednesday, Gabbard met with Assad twice in the presence of senior Syrian officials who brought the documents and the files. They were presented to her and not only surprised her, but astounded her. She was given proof whose veracity she would be able to confirm upon her return to the U.S..."