WASHINGTON (AP) — In an unusual political sit-down, a congressional Democrat on Monday warned President-elect Donald Trump about escalating the civil war in Syria by establishing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from the bombing.
Two-term Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has often challenged President Barack Obama on national security, said she held a "frank and positive" conversation with the Republican leader at Trump Tower in New York, discussing Syria and other foreign policy issues.
Gabbard said in a statement that creating a safe zone off limits to military aircraft could bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia, "which could result in a nuclear war." Gabbard, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, also said she and Trump discussed legislation that she is pushing that would end what she described as "our country's illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government."
Trump asked for the meeting, Gabbard said, to discuss Syria, the fight to defeat the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and other foreign policy issues. Aides to the president-elect said Trump wants to hear viewpoints from across the political spectrum.
While Gabbard acknowledged that the rules of "political expediency" dictate that she should have refused the meeting, she accepted over concern that a wing of the Republican Party known as the neocons will grow in influence once Trump takes office in January. She said that could push the U.S. more deeply into Syria, where the war now in its sixth year has killed as many as a half-million people.
"I felt it important to take the opportunity to meet with the President-elect now before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government," wrote Gabbard, who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.
The Obama administration has refrained from setting up a no-fly, or safe, zone for civilians in Syria partly because of the complexity in enforcing it and the potential for direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said last month that he "wouldn't put it past" Russia to shoot down a U.S. aircraft if a no-fly zone is imposed over Syria.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for a no-fly zone over parts of Syria during the campaign, as did Mike Pence, Trump's vice president-elect. But Trump didn't take a firm position.
The administration has refused to target Assad's forces directly but has provided air support to the battle-hardened Syrian Kurds. Trump, however, has expressed skepticism about U.S. backing for Syrian rebels and hinted at working more closely with Moscow against the Islamic State.
Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, said she made clear to Trump that a no-fly zone would escalate the war in Syria. That would lead to "more death and suffering, exacerbate the refugee crisis, strengthen (the Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and bring us into a direct conflict with Russia which could result in a nuclear war," she said.
She said ending what she called "regime change warfare" has been one of her top priorities.
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