Hill says American leadership needed to solve Syrian crisis, drug trade

by Alex Thomas
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
August 29, 2023

When U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., and an American delegation made a rare visit Sunday to a northern Syrian school, the group was met by a group of orphans affected by the country's civil war.

The children of Wisdom House -- a school for young children displaced by the 12-year conflict -- greeted the party with pictures of loved ones who died amid the war between Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and rebel forces.

"These are 6-year-olds. These are first graders," Hill told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from Turkey. "When you have a 6-year-old telling me, 'This is a picture of my dad, he was murdered by Assad,' that's tough."

Reps. Ben Cline, R-Va., and Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis., joined the Little Rock congressman on the one-hour trip to Wisdom House, marking the first time American lawmakers have made a known trip to Syria since 2017. The late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visited northern Syria in February 2017 to speak to deployed U.S. troops.

The trip is a highlight of an ongoing overseas trip for Hill focused on better understanding Syria's influence on the Middle East and the broader international community. Hill consulted with U.S. diplomats and regional partners ahead of the trip concerning the production of Captagon, a synthetic amphetamine produced in Syria and trafficked to surrounding nations.

The congressman additionally shared concerns regarding the Arab League's decision to reinstate Syria, ending a 12-year suspension tied to the civil war.

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with the Syrian government's decision to use armed forces to disrupt peaceful anti-Assad protesters. The United Nations estimates more than 305,000 civilians have died since the conflict's start, with 6 million Syrians leaving the country and another 6.7 million people internally displaced.

The Syrian government has received support from Iranian military forces and Russian air forces. The United States has maintained sanctions against Syria and Assad since August 2011.

Hill sponsored legislation in the last Congress to require the federal government to develop a plan to disrupt narcotics production and trafficking efforts tied to Assad's government. The measure, the CAPTAGON Act, became law last December as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

The State Department released its related report in June with an overarching plan involving improved diplomatic relations for pressuring Syria, sanctions targeting Assad regime-affiliated networks, and collaboration between multiple countries on performing counter-narcotics efforts.

"The Captagon trafficking network operates across 17 countries, ranging from Italy to Malaysia, including those involved in supplying precursors, production, transit, and end-user distribution," the report states. "Entities with known or suspected links to officials in Syria's Assad regime, such as Hizballah, are producing Captagon and counterfeit tablets purporting to be Captagon, in Syria and Lebanon."

The congressman's trip initially focused on Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom to study Captagon trade, but Hill saw an opportunity to see efforts to help Syrians affected by the military conflict. The congressman coordinated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force -- an American organization opposed to Assad's regime -- on making the trip possible.

The Syrian Emergency Task Force's projects include the Wisdom House and the House of Healing, a Turkish medical facility directed at providing health care for severe conditions and injuries.

The Washington, D.C.-based group has an office in Little Rock. Hill noted many of the organization's supporters reside in Central Arkansas.

"Right away, of course, we said we'd be excited to do that. We're grateful that he wanted to do that," organization executive director Mouaz Moustafa said of Hill's request.

Moustafa was born in Damascus but moved to Arkansas when he was 9 years old. An alumnus of the University of Central Arkansas, Moustafa gained legislative experience as a congressional aide for Arkansas Rep. Vic Snyder and Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

Moustafa and the Syrian Emergency Task Force provided similar assistance to McCain during a May 2013 trip involving rebel leaders.

Speaking from near the Syria-Turkey border, Moustafa explained the trip Sunday involved communication with multiple parties, including the Wisdom House, the Turkish government and the State Department. Armed Turkish NATO forces guided the American delegation.

"Number one, we're going into one of the most -- if not the most -- dangerous countries in the world. Number two, we're going in with members of Congress," Moustafa said. "I know Russia, Iran, Assad, ISIS and all of these bad guys would love to do something bad to [them]."

The State Department did not return the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's request for comment.

"I just wanted to see the kids and meet their teachers, meet their principal, meet the doctors who are active in that community and the hospital," Hill said.

From Hill's perspective, the United States must continue sanctions against Assad over Captagon and discuss the purpose of regional nations' allowing Syria back into the Arab League with no pre-conditions.

"It's going to take American leadership working with the neighboring countries and the European Union to see if, once again, we can't press for a political solution to the conflict in Syria," he said.

The congressman contended the United States failed to make a serious effort to confront Assad at the start of the civil war, but there is time to "turn the page and go in another direction."

"America always tries to stand for representative government and people's voices being heard," he added.

"Right now, even in regime-controlled cities, there are protests against Bashar Assad this week because of the continued death and economic desperation he brings to his people while he enriches his regime with Russian jets and Shia militia, and peddling Captagon drugs around the region," Hill said.

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