WASHINGTON ― Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a rising star in Congress and ally of former President Barack Obama, deleted a tweet and edited a Facebook post about a meeting with the noted Syrian humanitarian group the White Helmets last week after online comments accused him of cheering interventionism, a spokeswoman confirmed to HuffPost on Tuesday.
“Congressman Khanna opposes U.S. military intervention in Syria,” Liz Bartolomeo wrote in an email. “He met with representatives from the White Helmets to support their humanitarian efforts in Syria. The congressman updated his social media posts about the meeting to clarify his position.”
Some Western commenters on the far left and the far right falsely claim that the White Helmets organization is aligned with al Qaeda in Syria, and echo the Russian argument that the group is a sham to justify Western involvement in the country.
After meeting with the widely praised group on April 26, Khanna issued a tweet and a Facebook post. It’s not clear exactly what the original posts said ― the tweet is not available on the tracking site Politwoops or the Wayback Machine, and Khanna’s office refused to describe the specific language ― but he soon backtracked by deleting the tweet and editing the Facebook message. At least one of Khanna’s responses to critics of the original tweet could still be seen on Twitter as of Tuesday evening.
Bartolemeo declined to confirm whether Khanna altered the social media content because of the online pushback. “He wanted to make his policy position clear. I cannot say what initiated it,” she wrote.
The episode reflects the tensions on the left in discussions about the bloody six-year civil war in Syria ― and the way congressional Democrats are sometimes struggling to deal with their newly galvanized, occasionally conspiracist base.
Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, drew huge progressive applause last month after he loudly condemned President Donald Trump’s strike against a Syrian airfield tied to a deadly chemical weapons attack by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
An April 7 Vox article gave Khanna credit for breaking with the Democratic establishment on the Hill, which supported the strike by citing Assad’s brutality and international norms against chemical weapons use. Most Democratic criticism of Trump’s actions focused on process: Why hadn’t the president asked Congress for permission first? By criticizing the substance of the act rather than the way it was carried out, Khanna was more in tune with party activists, the Vox story suggested.
The congressman soon made back-to-back appearances on MSNBC, on April 9 and 10, to share his view that the U.S. needs to realize the follies of intervention abroad. Two weeks later, he got the star treatment on the popular left-wing site The Young Turks. “I think we can be strong and principled without being militaristic,” Khanna said. “And frankly I wish more Democrats would speak to the substance of a progressive foreign policy instead of... this fear that, oh, we’ll be projected as weak on national security.”
Khanna supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last year and is a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. That makes him well-positioned to win national recognition at a time when Sanders is the biggest name in left-wing politics and many in the base believe that Trump’s victory could have been avoided had the Democrats embraced his message.
But Khanna’s alignment also puts him in proximity to elements of the left who have spent years pushing controversial, often factually inaccurate comments on Syria that advocates say whitewash Assad’s vicious rule. During his April 10 MSNBC appearance, for instance, Khanna mentioned a piece from Jeffrey Sachs, a prominent economist and Sanders booster, as a reasonable view on Syria. But Sachs, whose writing has appeared on HuffPost, is best known among Syria watchers for repeatedly pushing the idea that the Syrian conflict is the result of a U.S. plot rather than organic opposition to Assad, whose family has repressed the country for over 40 years.
And one of the voices on Twitter who rallied the opposition that prompted Khanna to change his mind about his tweet is activist Vanessa Beeley ― who has spread the debunked claim that Assad’s opponents make up news of regime violence, and who claims NATO is waging an information war against the Syrian government.
This serves an important function for them. In a conflict involving massive bloodshed, the voices of first responders carry a great deal of weight. And as the White Helmets have attracted international acclaim, being featured in an Oscar-winning documentary, Nobel Peace Prize gossip and the TIME 100 list, they’ve used high-profile platforms to call for an end to the fighting ― and to state repeatedly that the Assad regime is responsible for most of the deaths, not Western-backed rebels battling the regime or the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State. The group is not explicitly opposed to Assad’s rule, but its message threatens Damascus. Attacks by Assad and his allies have killed White Helmets rescuers on multiple occasions, most recently this weekend.
Khanna argues that he does not share this view of the organization.
“I was pleased to offer them a meeting,” he told HuffPost. “Most of the conversation focused on their humanitarian efforts... They had said that they help remove people from rubble and the war-torn areas, whether they’re supportive of Assad or not supportive of Assad.”
The congressman says he recognizes Assad’s excesses, particularly his systematic discrimination against the majority community in Syria, Sunni Arabs, but does not support an American military role in dealing with them. He recommends that the U.S. strongly push for international prosecution against the regime. “Of course, it’s not going to be swift justice,” Khanna said. “Over years, if America makes those arguments, I think it will advance our credibility in the region.”
He’s trying to walk a fine line. The same day he met with White Helmets representative Jehad Mahameed, one of the original founders of the civil defense organization, Khanna became a co-sponsor of a controversial bill from fellow lawmaker Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) that implies the Syrian actors the U.S. is supporting as part of a covert effort to weaken Assad are in fact partners with al Qaeda and the Islamic State. (The White Helmets openly receive U.S. funding as part of the publicly acknowledged American aid package for Syria; the volunteer rescue service also relies on individual donations and help from other governments, like those of Denmark and Japan.)
The far left loves Gabbard for her apparent pacifist instincts on Syria and her willingness to support Assad’s version of events.
At the same time, Khanna said he does not support Gabbard’s January trip to meet with the Syrian dictator.
“I respect Congresswoman Gabbard’s desire for us not to militarily intervene, but I don’t think that we should be legitimizing Assad in any way, because he has committed, in my judgment, war crimes,” the congressman told HuffPost.
But with his actions last week, Khanna appears to have done some legitimizing himself.
This article has been updated with specific information about claims Beeley has made online about manufactured evidence of Assad atrocities.