WASHINGTON ― Ahead of a tight primary on May 8, Dennis Kucinich’s bid to win the Democratic nomination for the critical gubernatorial race in Ohio landed in trouble this week because of the revelation that he was paid $20,000 last year by a group sympathetic to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Now, largely overlooked election filings show that the former congressman’s political apparatus received thousands of more dollars from two brothers involved in multiple efforts to bring Kucinich and Assad together since 2007.
Elie Khawam, a member of a pro-Assad party in the Middle East, gave $6,000 to Kucinich Action PAC in two installments: $1,000 on May 4, 2015, and $5,000 on Nov. 1, 2016, two months before Kucinich’s most recent meeting in Syria with the dictator. Elie’s brother, Bassam Khawam, gave $2,000 to the Kucinich for President campaign on June 30, 2012. Both men, who are U.S. citizens, accompanied Kucinich on his January 2017 visit, and Bassam has said they funded the trip.
Kucinich has depicted his visits with Assad ― all but one of which took place after the Syrian ruler began turning his guns on his own people in 2011― as important diplomatic outreach to avoid American foreign policy mistakes and militarism. But he has also repeatedly downplayed credible reports of war crimes by the Assad regime, including at an April 2017 British conference the pro-Assad group paid for him to attend, three months after his trip to Damascus. Kucinich opponents are now making the issue central to the question of whether he’s fit to be governor.
“Kucinich has been an outspoken defender of the Assad regime in Syria even as it killed countless people and has repeatedly used chemical weapons against defenseless civilians,” former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), a supporter of Democratic front-runner Richard Cordray, said Wednesday.
Cordray’s campaign is already demanding that Kucinich reveal any other income since he left Congress in 2013, including potential payments for multiple appearances on RT, a media outlet owned by the pro-Assad government of Russia.
The former congressman’s financial ties to the Khawam brothers could add fuel to the fire.
Asked about the donations, Kucinich spokesman Andy Juniewicz noted that the men had been friends for over 30 years. The Kucinich campaign says Cordray’s team is misrepresenting his views.
HuffPost’s attempts to contact the two brothers were unsuccessful.
While Bassam Khawam had helped bring Kucinich to Syria before, the trip in January 2017 drew particular attention because it included Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a favorite among some grassroots Democrats, and came just as President Donald Trump was entering office after suggesting he would soften U.S. opposition to Assad. Khawam told The Atlantic that his role does not mean he supports the Syrian regime. But in the days after the trip became public knowledge, sources told The Washington Post that Bassam had frequently visited Assad’s former ambassador to the U.S., and Bassam’s brother Elie told the Daily Beast that he is a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a group fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria.
Gabbard last year said she repaid the costs of the trip after an uproar in Congress. Kucinich has rebuffed commentators’ calls to refund the Khawams. His lawyer told international relations analyst Idrees Ahmad that the visit was paid for by the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS-Ohio), a group Bassam Khawam once headed, and with Kucinich’s private funds.
After returning, the former congressman said he saw it as a fact-finding mission and also met with members of the opposition to Assad, and Khawam said his goal was “to stop the carnage.”
″He’s always been on the side of peace, and when he’s gone to Syria, when he’s gone to Lebanon, when he’s gone to Israel, it’s been in the interest of peace,” Juniewicz said on Friday. “His view is that there are many interests, many forces involved in all of the conflicts in the Middle East. It’s impossible to point the finger at one thing, one person, one factor as being the underlying cause.”
Yet antiwar figures on the left, such as Kucinich, have faced years of criticism that, in their haste to discourage American intervention and bash Western foreign policy, they have been too soft on Assad.
Kucinich’s campaign responded to the furor over the $20,000 from the pro-Assad group by releasing the transcript of the speech he was paid to give at the April 2017 conference in the U.K., which touted speakers such as two Assad ministers and a British baroness who has adopted talking points friendly to the Syrian regime.
While Kucinich did call Assad’s government an “authoritarian regime,” he echoed its depiction of the conflict as a result of meddling by the U.S. and partner nations including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar ― deflecting responsibility from the Assad family’s decades-long repression. “The war in Syria is not a civil war and never was,” he said.
He also repeated the claim that Assad provided free education and health care to his population ― an exaggeration especially bizarre in the context of the regime now systematically bombing hospitals ― and gave “protection” to citizens of various faiths, neglecting to note suppressive measures pre-dating the conflict or Assad’s incitement of religious divisions to rally supporters.
“The West cannot impose its will on Syria, no matter how many bombs it drops,” Kucinich said.
On the hotly debated issue of chemical weapon use, the former congressman did press Assad on claims he deployed internationally banned weapons against civilians during an interview with him in 2013 as part of Kucinich’s years of work for Fox News. But he has also cast doubt on the idea that Assad was to blame for gas attacks in 2017, criticizing the U.S. for strikes intended to punish the regime’s move.
The Joint Investigative Mechanism of the United Nations has since blamed Assad for the 2017 incident. Kucinich’s spokesman did not respond to a question about whether he believes that assessment but said the candidate is clear that something must be done about reports of deadly chemical weapon use weeks ago that prompted a joint U.S.-British-French attack last weekend on sites in Syria.
“Certainly, the culprits responsible for the gas attack on Douma need to be identified and brought to justice. But last night’s missile strike occurs as a violation of international law at precisely the time when international law must be enforced on behalf of the victims of Douma,” Kucinich said on April 14. “It is noteworthy that those responsible for the gas attack have yet to be identified.”
Financial disclosures for Kucinich’s latest campaign are due on April 26.
UPDATE ― April 25: Hours after a critical editorial was posted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kucinich’s campaign issued a press release on Wednesday, April 25, saying the Khawam brothers had supported other Democratic and Republican politicians in the past and describing the men as pro-peace.
The statement quoted both brothers. “Dennis believes in peace, as we do, and that’s why we support him,” Bassam Khawam said. “The safety of our family members here in the United States and in Lebanon are being placed in serious jeopardy by untruthful accusations,” Elie Khawam said.
The statement also doubled down on Kucinich’s past portrayal of the war in Syria as the product of U.S. interventionism rather than Assad’s brutality, saying that on the candidate’s last visit to Syria he met with religious leaders urging “an end to foreign support of terrorists who are trying to destroy Syria’s secular, pluralistic society.”
Kucinich is set to appear at a campaign event on Thursday with environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has argued that the Syrian conflict was caused not by popular unhappiness with Assad but by a plot devised by the U.S. and its partners in the Arab world to control Mideast oil and gas flows.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s state affiliation. She represents a district in Hawaii.