Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) on Sunday declined to fully condemn Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and refused to directly call him a war criminal.
“I think that the evidence needs to be gathered and, as I have said before, if there is evidence that he has committed war crimes, he should be prosecuted as such,” Gabbard, a military veteran, said when asked about her opinion of the Syrian ruler during a CNN Town Hall at the South by Southwest Conference.
Assad has been engaged in a years-long civil war against his own people. Moderator Dana Bash pressed her question further, asking about the candidate’s current beliefs regarding Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
“Everything that I have said requires that we take action based on evidence,” Gabbard added. “If the evidence is there, there should be accountability.”
Gabbard also responded to an audience member who asked about her skepticism about Assad’s use of such weaponry in 2017, saying she was now aware of reports that showed the actions took place.
At the time, the representative said she was “skeptical” that the Assad regime was behind an attack in 2017, saying there were a “number of theories out there.”
“The skepticism and the questions that I raised were very specific around incidents that the Trump administration was trying to use as an excuse to launch a U.S. military attack in Syria,” Gabbard said on Sunday of her past comments. “As a soldier, as an American, as a member of Congress, it is my duty and my responsibility to exercise skepticism any time anyone tries to send our service members into harm’s way or use our military to go in and start a new war.”
The United Nations has since documented many cases of the Assad government using chemical weapons against its own people, including an attack on a suburb outside Damascus that killed dozens of people, including children, last April. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a body established by the UN Human Rights Council, has also monitored dozens of similar incidents across the country involving chlorine gas or the nerve agent sarin.
And the United States last April also accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weaponry at least 50 times since the country’s civil war began more than seven years ago.
“Let’s be clear: Assad’s most recent use of poison gas against the people of Douma was not his first, second, third, or even 49th use of chemical weapons,” then UN ambassador Nikki Hayley said at the time of the suburban Damascus attack. “The United States estimates that Assad has used chemical weapons in the Syrian war at least 50 times. Public estimates are as high as 200.”
The Sunday town hall was one of three CNN hosted at South by Southwest. Presidential hopefuls former Rep. John Delaney and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also participated.
This year, the annual Austin, Texas-based festival attracted a handful of other 2020 candidates including, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who hasn’t said whether he will run for president, also attended the festival.