- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) - Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has made an unannounced trip to Syria and Lebanon, traveling to the region two months after she sat down with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss foreign policy.

The Hawaii congresswoman has frequently challenged President Barack Obama on national security issues. In the meeting with Trump, she warned him about escalating the civil war in Syria by establishing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from bombing. She has said she believes that creating such a safe zone off limits to military aircraft could bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia and result in nuclear war.

Spokeswoman Emily Latimer said Wednesday that Gabbard, who is a major in the Army National Guard, “has long been committed to peace and ending counterproductive, interventionist wars.”

Latimer wouldn’t say if Gabbard met with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“As a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, and as an individual committed to doing all she can to promote and work for peace, she felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees and government and community leaders,” Latimer said in a statement.

She said she wouldn’t provide any additional details on the trip until Gabbard returns.

Al-Watan, a pro-government Syrian daily, reported that a U.S. delegation including Gabbard visited the city of Aleppo. The paper said the delegation visited the Aleppo citadel, which has been partially damaged by fighting, along with parts of eastern Aleppo that had until Dec. 22 been in rebel control.

The State Department has issued a travel warning for Syria and continues to warn U.S. citizens against all travel to the country.

A State Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said as the trip was private, the department was not involved.

The office of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was not consulted prior to Gabbard’s trip, according to a senior Republican aide.

In 2005, the administration of President George W. Bush withdrew the ambassador from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus following the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, for which Syrian agents were blamed.

Two years later, the Bush administration and numerous Republicans were critical of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when she made a visit to Syria and met with Assad. In 2010, Obama returned an ambassador to Syria only to remove him and close the embassy a year later amid the Assad government’s worsening crackdown on opposition protesters that turned into the country’s civil war.

As a senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry made at least two trips to Damascus in 2009, before Obama nominated a new ambassador.

In her November meeting with Trump, Gabbard said the two discussed legislation 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 then, to discuss Syria, the fight to defeat the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, and other foreign policy issues.

Gabbard, who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, said she accepted the meeting with Trump 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.

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.

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’s trip was first reported by Foreign Policy.

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AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee and reporter Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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