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Arkansas lawmaker describes going on the first congressional trip to Syria in 5 years


The first congressional visit to Syria in five years took place over the weekend. Three Republican lawmakers crossed over the border from Turkey and visited a school for orphans. Congressman French Hill of Arkansas was one of the men on the trip, and he's here to tell us about it. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FRENCH HILL: Ari, it's great to be with you. Thanks for the invitation.

SHAPIRO: What did you see in Syria?

HILL: Well, first and foremost, we crossed the border from Turkey with an eye that we wanted to see these kids who've lost their parents to Assad's murder and mayhem over the last 12 years. And what broke my heart was these were children that essentially are now 6 years old. They're first graders. They're holding up photos of their fathers that were murdered by Assad, but they've known nothing else. They've effectively lived on the run in a refugee camp since they were born.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about one of the kids you met?

HILL: Well, I asked a little girl how old she was, and she said she was 6. And I asked her what her favorite hobby was outside of school, and she said she loved to play football, meaning not American football but European football.

SHAPIRO: Soccer. Yeah.

HILL: And she had this bright, beautiful face. And she appeared happy, but I know that's only because I got to meet her teachers and her principal - what deeply committed people these are. But there's nothing normal about the life that these sweet kids are enduring right now.

SHAPIRO: I understand that, for safety reasons, the group was only able to spend less than an hour in Syria and that you were inside of the Turkish border. So would you say this was mostly a symbolic statement? And if so, what message were you trying to send?

HILL: I mean, this is not to be tolerated by decent, caring nations, which is why I really urge the Biden administration to continue to look at Syria and advocate for a new change in policy. And we're going, unfortunately, in the wrong direction due to the Arab League's recent normalization of relations with Syria.

SHAPIRO: Well, let me ask you about that. The civil war started more than a decade ago, and it has continued through changes in policy under three presidents - Obama, Trump and now Biden. The Arab League recently voted to reinstate Syria's membership after a 12-year suspension. And so do you think it's time for the U.S. to stop pretending that American policy towards Syria will determine the outcome of this war?

HILL: We need to look at doing something different, and that's one reason why I wanted to join my colleagues and engage with the interim government in northwest Syria who want a free Syria. They want to hold elections. They want to have a pluralistic society there. They want to have villagers and refugees come back. Some 3 million refugees are in Turkey. There's over a million in Jordan. They want to go back and have the Syria that they remember.

SHAPIRO: But at this point, the Arab League seems to be saying, after 12 years, the reality of the situation is Assad remains as firmly entrenched as ever. Does the U.S. need to face that same reality?

HILL: Well, I think we should face the reality that Assad is still there. But look at this, Ari. The stated public goals of the Saudi Arabians and others are end the drug trade from Syria to surrounding states called Captagon that's poisoning families in Arab countries...

SHAPIRO: This is a synthetic amphetamine that's produced in Syria.

HILL: Correct, driven by the Assad regime including Assad family members - end Iran's disproportionate influence in Syria and remove the 30,000 fighters that Iran has brought into the country. Why didn't you have preconditions that would facilitate accomplishing some of those objectives, first and foremost safety and security? And secondarily, remove the Iranian fighters. And thirdly, end the Captagon trade. That's something that's in Assad's power. He could stop manufacturing methamphetamine and poisoning people throughout the Gulf and Europe.

SHAPIRO: Your district is home to a large Syrian population. How have the Syrian people you've gotten to know in Arkansas shaped your understanding of what the U.S. role in this conflict ought to be?

HILL: Well, they want American leadership working with neighboring countries and European allies to find a political solution to Syria. They want to be able to go back to their graveyards, back to their villages, back to their ancestral homes, back to relatives that they still have there. So we take it personally in Arkansas because we know the people that are impacted by Assad's regime.

SHAPIRO: Congressman French Hill, Republican of Arkansas. Thank you very much.

HILL: Ari, thanks for the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMANTHA BARRON SONG, "SIN MI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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