WASHINGTON ― Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent California Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he regrets deleting a tweet about his meeting with Syria’s White Helmets humanitarian organization and rejects the claim that group has ties to terrorists.
After HuffPost wrote about Khanna’s tweet and edits to a Facebook post on Tuesday, he reached out multiple times to elaborate on his view of the White Helmets. The volunteer rescue organization faces smear campaigns from the Syrian government and Russia, which claim the White Helmets is a sham to justify Western involvement in Syria, and from Western commenters on the far left and the far right, who falsely say the group is aligned with al Qaeda in Syria.
“I don’t think there was a flip-flop,” Khanna said Wednesday, referring to the headline of HuffPost’s story about his social media backtracking. “The Facebook page we edited to put more context. … Twitter doesn’t allow you to edit.”
It’s unclear what the original posts said ― the tweet is not available on tracking sites, and Khanna’s office refused to provide the language. Khanna didn’t personally comment for the earlier article, despite multiple inquiries to his office prior to publication. The story included statements from his spokeswoman, Liz Bartolomeo.
Khanna, who loudly opposed President Donald Trump’s strike against the Syrian regime last month, put up the original posts after an April 26 meeting with a White Helmets representative. People on social media, where the White Helmets are frequently misrepresented, accused him of supporting a terror front and of advocating U.S. intervention in Syria.
Meanwhile, Khanna said, two Bay Area constituents suggested he check a White Helmets website that prominently features a quote from the group’s head, Raed Saleh, asking the United Nations Security Council to “follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.”
“Traditionally, that call has been accompanied by a call for military intervention,” Khanna said.
The White Helmets say they are a neutral resource for those suffering in areas held by Syrian President Bashar Assad and in regions controlled by Western-backed rebels opposed to his rule. The group says its work appears to challenge the regime because it points out that the vast majority of killings are caused by Assad, and because the regime has tried to stamp out the White Helmets.
White Helmets critics say the group encourages Western intervention because it calls for help from the Western world, and because it has ties to a nonprofit group called the Syria Campaign, which has previously argued that Syria’s people want a no-fly zone.
Supporters of the group, however, say that the White Helmets should be judged by its humanitarian impact, and that it’s unfair and disrespectful to Syrians to associate volunteer first responders with Western interventionism.
Tuesday night, Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom and a prominent voice in the online conversation about Syria, challenged Khanna’s logic for deleting the previous tweet and editing his Facebook post.
Khanna said he wants to show that U.S. politicians can oppose intervention in Syria’s civil war without veering into conspiracist talk.
“Assad’s regime has been a monstrous regime,” he said. “That does not mean that we should go out” and topple it, he added, citing security vacuums after U.S. involvement in Iraq and Libya, and former President John Quincy Adams’ advice that America should avoid seeking “monsters to destroy.”
Khanna said Assad’s regime should be brought to justice through international law, even if that’s a slow and potentially impossible prospect, given Russia’s protection of the dictator.
Khanna said he sees himself as allied with non-interventionist Capitol Hill figures, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who criticize Assad while firmly opposing U.S. action in Syria.
Last week, Khanna sought to distance himself from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who some non-interventionists champion, saying he did not endorse Gabbard’s meeting with Assad earlier this year.
Khanna remains a co-sponsor of Gabbard’s bill, called the Stop Arming Terrorists Act. He joined the legislation the same day he met the White Helmets representative. On its face, the bill appears to push the same kind of conspiracy talk Khanna said he doesn’t believe about the White Helmets. The bill blocks U.S. funding from the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda, or governments that have aided those groups.
Asked if he believes, as do Gabbard and Assad, that the U.S. government is supporting terrorists, Khanna denied that view is the basis of the legislation.
“I joined the bill because it was led by Senator Rand Paul,” Khanna said. (Paul introduced the Senate version.)
“I’m certainly not buying into any conspiracy theories, but it’s more a statement that America will not go intervening in civil domestic conflicts … I have not seen any evidence [of support for terror groups] and I certainly don’t think that is the intent of our military,” he added.
Khanna said the view he endorses is important and receives too little attention. “I’m so outspoken on the brutality of the Assad regime … but there shouldn’t be a humanitarian intervention.”