Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich doesn't want to say whether or not Syria is a democracy. He'd prefer not to comment on just what Russia's role in the bombing of Eastern Aleppo was. And he'd really just rather the world focus on peace in Syria, rather than what to do with President Bashar al-Assad.
That was the best that could be drawn from Kucinich in a half-hour phone interview with BuzzFeed News, given days after his return from what he repeatedly referred to as a "fact-finding mission" to Syria alongside Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. While there, both he and Gabbard met with Assad, who has refused to yield power as a precondition for the halt of the civil war that has ground on for more than five years.
Gabbard first revealed officially that she had not only been in Syria but sat down with Assad in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. She denied initial reports that said hers was a secret mission, saying that both the House Ethics Committee and leadership were notified.
(Gabbard's office has declined to give further comments on her trip beyond her CNN interview and the press release it sent around shortly after.)
Kucinich backed that up, saying that the State Department was also informed as soon as they learned that it would be possible for them to cross from Lebanon into Syria. The trip was funded and arranged by ACCESS-Ohio, a local Arab-American support group that Kucinich has known and worked with as Cleveland's congressman since shortly after their founding in 1993 until he left Congress in 2012. "If they had a political agenda, I wouldn't go," he said. "I've had a lifetime in politics, I don't need more politics."
During their meeting with Assad, Kucinich said, the pair didn't raise the issue of the regime's chemical weapons usage. "At this point, that had been raised in the past," he said, pointing to an interview he'd conducted with Assad that aired on Fox News in 2013 where the Syrian president agreed he'd be willing to give up his chemical arsenal as evidence that the matter was dealt with. "What he talked about [in the recent meeting] was their efforts to end the war and return to some semblance of security."
Assad has spent years insisting that his regime has been fighting terrorists all along and Kucinich's view of the 2011 protest movement that launched the civil war tracks closely with the Syrian leader's. Kucinich acknowledged at least that there was a homegrown pro-democracy protest movement at the start of the conflict. "Was there a legitimate protest? Yes. Did some people in Syria take up arms? Yes. But they were soon overwhelmed by outside interests."
And on the matter of alleged war crimes the Syrian government has committed, Kucinich demurred. "I don't think anybody I know who I've talked to is ready to be an apologist for the ravages of war," he said. "It's horrific. And after this is over, there'll be plenty of time to determine what happened and if it exceeded the limits of what's acceptable under international law." (He seemed unaware of the UN Commission of Inquiry that has been tracking the matter since 2011 and has said that both sides have committed war crimes.)
"My personal view is that war itself is crime," Kucinich said. "And you want to end the war, you don't want a war to start. I've seen the effects of war and you don't want a war to start. And who knows what a country will do to defend itself?"
Evidence of that was on display in the first place that the two visited while in Syria: Aleppo, a city whose eastern half is still recovering from a lengthy siege put into place by the Syrian government and a fierce battle between the government and rebels that ended with the aid of Russian warplanes. Activists and doctors alike said that campaign bombed indiscriminately, taking out hospitals and at times targeting civilians.
Russia never came up during the time he and Gabbard spent among refugees in the city, he says, but he did say that he spotted "a couple, two or three people" sent from Russia to dismantle unexploded ordinance. Asked whether they were there to specifically clean up the Russian bombs that were dropped on the ravaged city, the former congressman merely said that there were there "to help in taking bombs, anything that was unexploded weapon. I guess there's probably a lot of it."
And on whether Syria — where Assad claims legitimacy through a 2014 election his government says he won 88.7% of the vote — is a democracy right now? "I think it's very difficult to be able to have a functioning democracy when your country is under siege," he said.
All of that is just details, it seems, in the pursuit of ending the war and bringing peace to Syria — no matter what that peace looks like.
"I have spent a career challenging wars," he said, "I lead the effort against the war in Iraq, and the war in Libya, I saw what would happen, I cautioned against US involvement in Syria. At some point as human beings we have to find a way to stop killing each other and find a way to move forward without trying to wipe each other out."